Where to begin when trying to capture the most amazing trip ever in one blog post? So yeah, this is
probably going to be a long one… Here we go, North Korea – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the Hermit Kingdom – or, just as they call it themselves, Korea.
The World’s Most Notorious Airline
On Thursday we gathered at the Koryo Tours office in Beijing at 8am to catch our 11am Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang. Some of you might know that this airline is on the official “black list” which has nothing to do with their safety standards or something (there have been no accidents whatsoever) but is mostly due to their lack of transparency and noncompliance with environmental regulations. The flight was actually pretty cool: a decent Russian Tupolev, some nice revolutionary songs playing on the tv screens, the Pyongyang Times, and the very (in)famous Air Koryo Burger. This consists of some sweet brioche-like bread, a weird meat mixture (dog?), and some lettuce. Nope, not a fan. After two hours we arrived at Pyongyang airport safe and sound and totally ready to discover the country!
At the airport we met our guides from the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) which is the government agency that deals with all foreign visits. There is no way to go around the country without them, as I said in an earlier post, no freedom to wander about. So there was Hannah, our guide from the UK company (based in Beijing) Koryo Tours, and then there was Tall Li, sort of the chef de mission, Soo Hong, our female guide, Little Li, the funny one, a cameraman (that’s right) and a driver.
The Dutch Are Everywhere
Our first stop was a brewery, which we all thought was a pretty good start! Our group consisted of 19 people, and out of those there were 5 Dutchies (including us). So of course we immediately bonded. What we absolutely did not expect was to find one of our great Dutch artists on a big screen in a brewery in Pyongyang… Wait for it…
BAM! National hero Andre Rieu on screen in a bar in North Korea! So yeah, it was a good start.
Pyongyang Metro aka Bomb Shelter
After the brewery we visited the Pyongyang metro, which is very very cool. It was opened in 1968 and is (among) the deepest in the world, at 110 meters underground. So it is also a bomb shelter, complete with very heavy steel doors. We were allowed to visit three stations and ride 6 stops, which is not very common for foreigners. There was a bit of panic amongst the Korean guides when we just jumped on the train in different carriages and we were kindly instructed to get in just one carriage the next stop… In the next days we earned the trust of the guides so they weren’t as strict as on day 1, but they kept counting us every street we crossed ;).
The Real Arch of Triumph
We got off at Kaeson (Triumph) station to check out the Arch of Triumph. Yes, just like the one in Paris only 2 meters higher. Gotta love that communist ambition! Then we walked through the city which was quite unexpected since I thought we would not be able to actually “mingle” with locals (pass each other in the street and stare and/or smile). So that was pretty cool, and Pyongyang is truly a beautiful city.
We also spotted a lot of gatherings on the street since people were practicing all sorts of stuff for the big day on Saturday (27th of July) for the 60th anniversary of Victory Day (which was the main reason we went on this specific tour).
First tourists in Pyongsong
That first night we stayed an hour outside of Pyongyang which was actually very special since we were the first group of foreigners to stay in the provincial town of Pyongsong, and we had a great evening with our guides and group mates (and some Korean beers).
The Bull’s Eye of the World
The next morning, on Friday, we left very early to drive all the way down south to the border with South Korea to visit the DMZ (demillitarized zone). At the DMZ a young and handsome soldier explained what had happened down there during the peace talks and showed us around the various buildings. The highlight of course was actually looking at South Korea a few meters away from us. In theory you could just walk over to the other side since there are no fences whatsoever (though you’ll probably get shot or captured). The big building in the back on the photos is South Korea, the actual border is the line between the blue and gray baracks you can see. Pretty intense to visit the bull’s eye of the world…
After the DMZ we visited the nearby old city of Kaesong which is actually the only city that survived the war in the 50s and we also slept in a traditional hotel, the Minsok Folk Hotel, (read: slept on the floor – pretty nice to be honest). Of course (one of) the Kim’s (is) are never far away so we stopped at a huge statue that overlooked the city. In the afternoon we visited the concrete wall, which is (uhm yeah a wall of concrete) built by the South Koreans in the 70s and is constantly watched by both sides (hm, where have we heard this before..?). A golden oldie of a general gave a nice presentation and was then very eager to take pictures with us (yessssss please!) and he even sang some revolutionary song for us. Nice. To finish the day and to cool off a bit (it was around 38 degrees) we went to the Pakyon Waterfalls which was really nice.
So Saturday was the big day, VICTORY DAY! We had an early start again since we wanted to be back in Pyongyang for whatever would happen in the city. On this day North Korea celebrates the victory in 1953 which meant the end of the war (well, it meant a cease fire, but still) which is a victory in their opinion. The South also celebrates V-Day, so yeah, they both feel like the victorious one… Anyway, first up was the Unification Monument. Before this trip I didn’t realize that North Korea actually sees the Korean peninsula as one country, which has been divided in two by the “US imperialists”. So for them, unification of the two sides is the ultimate goal.
When we arrived in Pyongyang it was still unclear, even for locals, where there would be some parade activities, and our Korean guides went out of their way to figure out if there was a possibility for us to actually witness the military parade. At first we waited on the banks of the river near Kim Il Sung Square where the massive assembly took place (you’ve probably seen some of it on TV). This is off limits to foreigners but we could hear the crowds cheer and we were totally in the best spot to watch the air show full of planes, helicopters and jets that flew up to the square. Very cool.
It was very cool that we could fairly easy interact with locals who were also very excited to see some foreigners in their closed off country. Yes they were shy, and there’s obviously the language barrier, but you can connect with people even without having a conversation.
After the air show we went to a big intersection in Pyongyang because one of our guides had heard that locals were gathering there and were expecting the parade to pass by. So we waited for a couple of hours, amongst the locals, which was very very cool since we’d anticipated to only see the parade from behind a hotel window or something. It was only the second time that foreigners were allowed to actually witness a parade, and there we were, just standing there on the streets. Amazingly awesome. And it was so totally worth the wait!
There were lots of army vehicles, trucks, tanks, soldiers, drones, and, yes, there were missiles. If I would have wanted I could have been crushed by a tank. W-O-W. Although it was very easy to get carried away within the whole festive atmosphere, it feels pretty bizarre to stand next to cheering, and extremely happy, school kids waiving at missiles passing by… Well, I just flirted a bit with the young soldiers and made their day of course ;). Overall it was an amazing experience and definitely a once in a lifetime one.
Yes. That’s right. That are actual missiles and warheads passing me by on Pyongyang main street. It doesn’t get much weirder than that.
After all this we visited Kim Il Sung Square which had been full with over 200.000 people only a couple of hours earlier but was almost completely empty when we got there. So we stood on a few of the dots painted on the ground to let people know where to stand during the mass gatherings.
The Arirang Mass Games
And as if this day wasn’t exciting enough, in the evening we had another major highlight, the Arirang Mass Games! Those of you who’ve watched Floortje Dessing (3 op reis) or the North Korea episodes of Departures know what this massive event looks like, but for those of you who have no clue, here it goes. Imagine sitting in the biggest stadium in the world (over 151.000 seats), watching the biggest performance in the world, bigger than the Olympics opening ceremony. Pretty neat right? OK, now imagine 20.000 students sitting at one of the long sides of the stadium across you. And then imagine these students all holding a big book with coloured pages in them. Still with me? Great. Now imagine them turning those pages every now and then so that a completely different view arises in front of you. Ow wait, also imagine there are many many performers, in total 80.000, who do all kinds of cool stuff on the floor. Yeah, I know, this is one awesome show! Though I strongly feel that pictures don’t do it justice, check out these pics for an impression.
Mystery at The Yanggakdo Hotel
The day after V-Day, Sunday, the morning started with a chaotic elevator situation in the Yanggakdo Hotel, the biggest hotel in Pyongyang. All 1500 rooms were booked, mostly by foreign delegations and Juche study groups who were invited to attend Victory Day. The hotel has a revolving restaurant at the 47th floor where we were supposed to have breakfast. But unfortunately the elevator system cannot keep up with the number of rooms and floors so it took FOREVER to (1) find an elevator (2) that wasn’t completely full and (3) was going to the 47th floor since only 2 out of 6 could go up there. Ow and no, there are no stairs. Seriously. So yeah, that was an hour (!) of your live you will never get back. It was hilarious though. Btw, the rumours are true: the hotel has a fifth floor which is totally untraceable…
The Massive Mausoleum
After breakfast we went to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, which is the mausoleum for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. This wasn’t just any other visit: we had to dress up and bow three times for each of the leaders (their actual dead bodies), at the feet, left and right, which felt a bit weird to be honest but we did it as a matter of decency and respect. Not out of respect for those particular leaders, but to the standards and practices of this culture. I compare it to taking off your hat in church or covering up in a temple or mosque even though you’re not religious. I know that’s not entirely the same, but I honestly do not feel I surrender or succumb to the Juche ideology by respecting their customs. The mausoleum was one of those “no photos” locations so you just have to trust me when I say it was impressive and odd at the same time.
The next stop was another interesting one: the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Flower Show. The what now?! That’s right, they have flowers that are especially created for the great leaders and they dedicated an entire exhibition to them. Nice! The young girl that was our guide there actually told us that the Kimjongilia can be found at the Keukenhof in Lisse and according to her it won 1st prize for something. Not sure whether to believe her since she also believed that Kim Jong Un was the most popular president according to the American people (which was actually an Onion article – a fictitious article that states that he was named Sexiest Man Alive). Koreans just don’t do sarcasm ;).
In the afternoon there was the option of going to a circus but we opted for some down time in a coffee house on Kim Il Sung Square, where they served really good coffee and we had a moment to hang out a bit and wander about on the square.
View From The Top
Then we visited the 150 meter high Juche Tower from which we had a nice view over the city, even with the foggy weather. And I had a special moment: I was all by myself for a few minutes. I had to go to the restrooms and Little Li was asked to escort me (remember: no wandering about on your own). So we went all the way down to the basement and had to walk through these really long hallways. And Li had to use the restrooms as well, and he needed more time than I did, so when I walked out of the restrooms I stood there in the long hallway in the basement of the Juche Tower – all by myself. I had the urge to start screaming and running or something, just to do something silly, but you never know if there are cameras following your every move so my only little act of rebellion was to make a funny face. Yep. Little rebel me! Then Li walked out and my moment was over. It is super weird how you truly appreciate such a moment after a few days without freedom of movement.
Because it was raining our guides took us to the Pyongyang bowling alley, where we had some fun amongst the locals. Very cool. And fyi, I came in second, so not bad.
Koreans Love Karaoke
We stayed in the Ryanggang Hotel in Pyongyang where we had an awesome night in the karaoke bar in the basement. Although we couldn’t understand the Korean songs the waitresses sang, we absolutely loved the on screen images!
The Great Leaders
On Monday we had another full day which started off at the Mansudae Fountain Park and Grand Monument where we took photos of the enormous great leaders’ statues. And remember, it is only allowed to photograph them in total (no cutting off heads or legs) and with respect, and of course we (sort of) played by the rules.
Best BBQ EVER
Then we had an amazing BBQ lunch at Dragon Mountain which was really cool and the staff was very eager to sing some revolutionary songs for us! We are now seriously hooked on Korean BBQ. So freaking delicious. The key is to take a thin slice of meat, like Korean marinated Bulgogi beef, and than wrap it in a lettuce leaf with some bean paste. Stick in your mouth and YUM! I’m telling you, it’s the best.
Mean Girls Are Everywhere
After lunch we visited the birthplace of Kim Il Sung in Mangyongdae (we even drank water from the old family well, oeh exciting) and then we we’re off to the June 9th Middle School where the kids gave a beautiful performance for us, even though it was their holiday. I even got to dance with one of the Korean mean girls. Seriously.
Hammer, Sickle, Brush
Of course we had to stop at the Party Foundation Monument before we headed over to the most bizarre and brilliant exposition I have ever been to: the National Gift Exhibition. This is a massive building (well, all buildings are huge in North Korea) and it is completely packed with gifts that they received from Koreans from within the country or abroad and various organizations. It is a collection that ranges from an awesome sort of painting which portrays Kim Jong Il riding a tiger to an Adobe Photoshop CD-Rom, to an entire miniature ants (!) army built from wood, and to a coffee mug from the musical Mamma Mia. No shit Sherlock, this was the best! Unfortunately, another “no photos” location but the images are branded in my mind forever.
Fun Times in Pyongyang
Our final evening in North Korea was spent at the Kaesong Funfair in Pyongyang, which was packed with locals and where we had some opportunities for livin’ on the edge! I survived the Superman roller coaster and the Tower of Terror and the man literally bumped into locals in the bumper cars. It was a great way to end an amazing adventure!
Morning Train From Pyongyang
The next day was departure day… We opted for taking the train out instead of flying with Air Koryo again since we wanted to experience a Korean train and this way we could see more of the beautiful countryside North Korea has to offer, because truly, we’ve seen some breath-taking scenery. The train from Pyongyang to the border with China took 5 hours and then the customs procedure started. We were warned for a very strict border control where officers would check all the bags and even all cameras but it turned out to be pretty friendly although it took over 2 hours. At the border city of Dandong we changed to a Chinese train which took us to Beijing in 14 hours. Then it was time to say goodbye to our new friends and our amazing guide Hannah. It absolutely definitely totally was the trip of a lifetime and an experience we will never ever forget. It is such an unreal realization that, in these modern times, you simply cannot keep in touch with the Korean guides who took such great care of us the entire week. No Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, phone numbers or addresses. We have all these cool photos of them and the only way to give those is to ask Koryo Tours to bring them with them on a next visit. Or take them with us on óur next visit. Because we will be back… Absolutely definitely.
For more information and/or more pictures (yes, there is more!), or if you want to check out the DVD our Korean cameraman made during the trip, you can always contact me.