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I do not even know where to start compiling this. I have around 550 photos, approximately 1000 words of sporadic thoughts and notes, and countless impressions which have left imprints on my mind throughout the 8 days I spent in the DPRK.
I’d usually document a visit like this in a chronological order, with accompanying photos and insights on what I’ve seen. The reality is that a tour like this should not be, and can not be accurately summarised to anybody who hasn’t visited North Korea. This trip wasn’t like taking a tour of the local attractions in any given city, where you could break down what you did each day, comment on how Starbucks is average no matter which country you’re in, and show photos of a hundred tourists looking at a statue of Buddha that a dozen other countries have several equivalents of. A huge part of the experience consists of the subliminal; small things you notice, interactions and observations you pick up on, those of which simply can’t be adequately conveyed on a blog.
A bit of background to the tour. As many will know, the only way to visit the DPRK is to join a guided tour, which involves being accompanied the entire time by a couple of Korean guides as well as one from your tour company. The classic stereotype involves an image of everyone walking toward a memorial in single file, with a guide at the start of the convoy and another following up the rear. How relaxed your guides are seem to depend on several factors: How well behaved your group is, the guides themselves and most importantly their relationship with your tour company. In my case, we seemed to nail all three; our group was fun yet mature, the guides were among the best, if not the best available and it was very obvious from the outset that the Koreans had a superb relationship with Young Pioneer Tours, the company I’d elected to travel with.
No, you can’t walk around wherever you like at night, or day, without supervision. You can’t just leave the hotel and go wandering down the street. However, you’re still granted a lot more freedom (within your destinations) than the media would have you believe. There is every opportunity to interact with Korean locals; while on the train, at a restaurant, on the subway, walking down the road, at a monument, pretty much every place you’d talk to someone in any other country. I had dozens of chances to speak to local Koreans, but whether that person spoke English is another matter.
There are several rules and laws that you need to abide by. No torn or informal wear at places of reverence, no photos of military officials or checkpoints, and no photos of any construction sites. When taking a photo of a statue or picture of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il you can’t crop any part of it out (they can check and make you delete it at any part of the tour, or at the border check on the way out). These rules and sveral others are made clear at the pre-tour breifing, and reminded when applicable during the trip.
I said earlier that I’d usually document everything chronologically, in a report fashion. It is for the reasons detailed earlier that I’m going to just cover off the finer points of what my TOUR entailed. I can’t efficiently articulate everything that occurred on this trip, so my goal for this blog post is to cover off some of the major events, sights and thoughts in an objective, observational fashion.
As I’m doing my whole trip by land, I opted for the 24-hour train in and out. The train in from Beijing was basically a party. They sell Budweiser for $2 a pop, which proved an affordable social lubricant for getting to know some of the others on the tour. Shout-out to my new mate Monday who spied an opportunity in the protruding feet of sleeping Chinese and invented ‘Tickle-tickle, Dash-Dash.” Good times.
This photo is taken from China. That’s the bridge to North Korea, and NK on the other side. On the other side of that bridge is the original bridge that the Americans bombed.
The border check on the way in was easily the most involved check I’ve ever been through. My possessions had to be itemized on a form, my bag was checked for things such as bibles or pornography, and my laptop and the SD card from my GoPro was taken away for inspection. The whole check is done on the train and takes around 2 hours. No photos are allowed to be taken at the border check.
Once we passed the border check, we were in to the country! This was our first opportunity to sample North Korean beer whilst we checked out the landscape over the next 6 hours through to Pyongyang.
620ml or 640ml?
As we were there for the Pyongyang marathon, the first thing we did when we arrived was to get on a bus and take a tour of the marathon route, providing us with our first view of the capital city.
Dinner at the hotel.
I wasn’t running the next day (a combination of shin splints, a fucked knee and too many Malboro reds in the weeks prior) but I still hit the sack early to get a good nights sleep before getting up early the next morning to head to the stadium.
The marathon was quite a spectacle. The stadium is huge, and filled with local Koreans, all wearing black (I haven’t even seen that much black at an All Blacks match). The Koreans all clap in unison which is quite a spectacle. Foreigners had a section near the gate where runners left after the start of the race. It was quite a surreal experience, I can’t describe it. There were hundreds, if not thousands of foreigners participating. Several of the guys and girls from my group placed quite highly. Those of us who weren’t participating were entertained by a couple of local football games.
It’d be rude to not enjoy a beer or two. The vendor didn’t have change so change for the beer consisted of souvenirs or sausage sticks.
The full marathon started and finished inside the stadium. Runners came in via one of the gates and ran half the track to the finish line. Now, a dude from Ethiopia who was coming first ran in to the stadium, following the timing car, but.. ran the wrong way! By the time someone pointed him in the correct direction and he turned around, a local Korean bloke had passed him and was well ahead. As you can imagine, the first chap was less than impressed; I don’t know how something like that can happen.
Following the marathon, we headed back to the hotel for a shower and a refresh before embarking on our first tiki-tour of the city. Forgive me for all the sub-par photos, many of them are shot through the window of the bus and without much notice.
The view from the first hotel, The Sosan, that we stayed at. We stayed here for a couple of nights as the usual hotel, the Yanggakdo, was going to be overly packed due to the influx of people here just for the marathon (loads of people came just for 3 days or so to complete the run and check out a couple of sights). The staff at the hotel are all friendly enough, but didn’t ask questions of us or anything.
The Ryugyong Hotel. This 105 story monster has been in construction since ’87 but progress has apparently been halted several times. In 2011 the exterior was completed but the interior is still in progress.
Bikes are the preferred method of transport in Pyongyang.
We visited a local micro-brewery which served 7 types of beers, which are suitably identified by the numbers one through seven. Makes it hard to fuck it up, really. All North Korean men, in Pyongyang at least, get given tokens for 10 free pints a month.
Pretty self-explanatory really.
This is Troy, MD of YPT tours. He was the guide for my group on the tour and made sure everything went as smooth as possible. On ya Troy.
Dinner at a local restaurant. All the food in North Korean restaurants is served either course by course, or laid out all out once when you arrive. Fermented cabbage is a local favourite and comes in different levels of spice, from mild to fuckinghell. Dinner often includes a performance of some kind by local Korean girls.
Several of the group developed a condition most nights in North Korea which required us to consume several beers. $1 a beer is manageable, though. Everywhere we could buy things accepted Chinese RMB, USD, or Euro.
These kiosks are everywhere and sell the usual sort of convenience stuff like fruit, crisps and drinks. We couldn’t go and buy from them directly as they only accepted Korean Won, the local currency which we couldn’t acquire.
You see loads of these vans everywhere blasting music and what I assume is propaganda at a moderate to high volume.
No visit to North Korea would be complete without checking out the Mansu Hill (Mansudae) monuments. There’s a formal process of visitation involved which includes forming a line and taking a bow. The statues are 22 metres tall but as one of our local guides explained, “We need not discuss the height, because they stand tall in our hearts.”
Note my posture. Hands by your sides, no funny posing allowed.
Group photo taken from Phillip’s camera – thanks for sharing them round, mate!
These are some average photos of Kim Il-Sung square, which is where you see the videos of the huge military parades. I’m not too sure what was going on here, I think people were rehearsing for the Kim Il-Sung birthday celebrations in a few days.
There are DPRK flags everywhere.
We visited a foreign book shop, which was one of our only opportunities to purchase translated Korean books, most of which contain some sort of anecdotes, lessons, advice or stories from or about either Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il or one of several ideologies. You can also purchase flags, pins (although not the ones worn by Worker’s Party members) and other souvenirs.
Before this post becomes mammoth in size I’m going to lock it off here. I’ll set about compiling parts two some stage soon. What I’ve covered here in part one includes most of the first two or three days of my 8 day tour. So far in the trip I’d gotten the chance to talk to several local Koreans, most of whom were more than happy to have a discussion. Due to my inability to turn down the temptation of a beer or two with the rest of the group I was averaging around 4 hours sleep a night, but that didn’t impede on the enthusiasm that was injected into myself and everyone else by the new things we were seeing each day.
One thing I’d noticed was the sheer amount of influence and injection of President Kim Il-Sung and Leader Kim Jong-Il. As you’ll notice from the photos, portraits of the two are everywhere you look. Most people you come across are wearing some from of badge on their shirts with the two faces on them, signifying they belong to The Worker’s Party. There is a stated reverence towards the two from all the Koreans you talk to.
Thanks for reading, and part two will be up shortly!