As my train travelled across the bridge separating China and North Korea, my stomach started to knot in apprehension. “Why am I doing this?” I thought to myself. The current tension between North Korea and the Western World had put doubt in my mind about whether this was safe. The train pulled to a stop and North Korean military flooded onto the train, where they took our passports and thoroughly searched our bags. We waited here at the border for 2 hours before the military got off the train and let us proceed towards Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city. After some hours passed, the lush countryside began to fade and huge monuments, buildings and skyscrapers took its place. We had arrived.
I very recently got back from a trip to The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or as its more commonly known, North Korea. It has taken me a few days to compose my thoughts and reflect upon everything I saw and experienced- the country was extremely different to how I imagined and threw a lot of my preconceptions out the window. I was surprised, for example, to find that Pyongyang was a very picturesque and modern city. I don’t know what I had expected from the capital city, but it certainly wasn’t this. I was also surprised to see that the countryside was absolutely beautiful, with rolling hills and vivid green colours. However, some things I saw also upset and angered me, which I will talk about in this and the coming articles.
Getting to North Korea
A lot of people don’t know that you can visit North Korea, but it is actually very easy to visit the country (at the moment at least). You can only visit with a guided tour company however, and this will take you on a very strict, itinerary-based tour around mainly Pyongyang, but also to places like the DMZ and Mount Myohyang. The tour company I went with was called Lupine Travel, and I found them to be very helpful pre-trip with their booking process and getting my visa ready. The tour itself was very well-planned and I thoroughly enjoyed it, although the restrictions placed on us, such as not being able to wander off and do our own thing and having to ask to go to the toilet and take photos, did get a little frustrating. But, this is the nature of tourism in North Korea, and is the same with all tours to the country.
We entered North Korea by taking an overnight train from Beijing to Dandong (a city on the border of China and Korea) and then another train from Dandong to Pyongyang- a pretty arduous journey taking around 18 hours. On arrival at the border, North Korean military searched all our bags and took copies of our passports, which took around 2 hours, before we proceeded to the capital city train station.
Day 1 – Arriving and Mansudae Hill
We arrived in Pyongyang at around 6pm, and immediately made our way to our tour bus, which was to take us from A to B during the whole trip. We were taken straight to Mansudae Hill, which contains the 22-metre bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. We had to walk in lines of four up the hill towards the statues, walking past about 200 military, before standing before the statues and bowing to them. Having just endured an 18 hour train journey and just arrived in the country, I wasn’t sure exactly how compliant we had to be, or how easy it was to get into trouble, so this experience made me feel very on-edge and completely overwhelmed. At the same time, it was probably one of the most surreal moments of my life.
We then ate dinner at a “local” restaurant. This restaurant was definitely set up for tourists, and in no way “local” but it was our first taste of Korean food, which I’ve decided I really like. Next, we went to our hotel for the night, which was the Yanggakdo International Hotel- the largest operating hotel in North Korea, and also one of the tallest buildings. This hotel was absolutely spectacular, with crystal chandeliers, marble floors and gold trimmings. It made me pretty angry actually; half the country are starving and yet this several-hundred-million dollar hotel exists.
Day 2 – The DMZ, Metro Station, The Arch of Triumph and The Fun Fair
We awoke bright and early, and headed to visit part of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which is a strip of land running along the Korean Peninsula. It is used as a buffer zone between North and South Korea, and is 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. We specifically visited the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is located in the truce village of Panmunjom; within the JSA are a row of buildings used for meetings between North and South Korea. I expected to feel quite tense during my visit to the DMZ, but the military guide who showed us around was actually pretty relaxed and put us at ease. Our military guide showed us around an area with a museum and where previous meetings had been held, before taking us to the JSA. We viewed the JSA from a balcony and watched the soldiers change shifts.
After lunch, we drove back to Pyongyang and took a ride on the Pyongyang metro. Before 2010, tourists were only allowed to ride between two stations, giving rise to a conspiracy theory that the metro was purely for show and that the passengers were actors. However, we rode the metro across 5 stations, and it was pretty interesting to see locals going about their daily lives. Every station was beautifully designed, and contained a huge picture or statue of one of the Kims.
As we walked out of the metro at our final stop, we were greeted with The Arch of Triumph: a huge, impressive monument built in 1952 to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan.
This is where something interesting happened. A guy on my tour asked our guide if he could buy an icecream at a nearby stall. Our guide said no, but he went and got one anyway, as did another guy from the group. This caused a lot of tension, and apparently this was written down as a “serious incident”. Now, it confused us as to why buying an icecream could be such a serious incident. Perhaps our guide was worried the icecream stall was fake? Or perhaps they didn’t want us to be interacting with locals in this way? Who knows, but its certainly strange.
Anyway, we went up to the top of The Arch of Triumph which graced us with a beautiful view of Pyongyang, with pastel colours and high-rise buildings.
After dinner, we headed to the local fun fair where we got to go on some rides. This was probably one of my highlights from the trip, as we got to see the locals having a good time and managed to interact with some of them. However, we were told that we should skip all the queues and go straight onto any ride we wanted, because “we’re Western”. This annoyed me a fair amount; this is not presenting a good view of us as Westerners to the citizens of North Korea, as this is conveying some sort of “white supremacy”. Perhaps this was the intention of this.
The best part was where we went on a swinging boat ride. Myself and a few others from my group were sat at one end, and some local school kids were sat on the other. As the boat swung higher and higher, we all started to laugh and be silly together and this felt like a genuine interaction with locals. We high-fived the kids as we got off and left them with huge smiles on their faces. As most of our time in the country was spent pretty segregated from the locals, this experience left me pretty happy.
Thank you for reading part 1 of my experience in North Korea! You can continue with part 2 here:
North Korea: My Visit to the World’s Most Secretive State (Part 2)
Thank you Errol for letting me use some of your photos!