A tourist trip to North Korea

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Back in 2007 I went to a North Korea for a holiday. Here is a quick summary of my trip.

Saturday 14th April

Where are the cars? Quiet streets greeted us in Pyongyang

Where are the cars? Quiet streets greeted us in Pyongyang

We flew into Pyongyang aboard a Air Koryo flight from Beijing. The customs officials dissected my bag with great enthusiasm but they only seemed to disapprove of my Lonely Planet guide to China. I for was mighty relieved as I hadn’t endured an elbow depth cavity search since that infamous trip to Madrid in 1999, and it wasn’t keen of a repeat here. I still have nightmares when I hear Eurotunnel mentioned.

Once we met our guides we boarded our coach. My first impressions of Pyongyang were that it was incredibly clean and that there were very few cars on the road.

Arch of Triumph

It wasn’t long before we stopped at the enormous Arch of Triumph. This stands at 60m tall, larger than it’s Paris counterpart and commemorates “Kim Il Sung’s victory over the Japanese imperialists”.

Having walked a few hundred yards to take a picture of a seemingly innocuous mural on the side of a nearby football stadium, I suddenly noticed around ten women in army uniform running towards towards me blowing whistles and pointing in my direction. At this point I began to mentally soil my brain pants with fear. Could it really be true that I was about to get kicked out of the country after only an hour?

I was more worried about what our Korean guides would say as we were told it was important to “gain their trust” and that they would get into trouble if I did something wrong. Playing the dumb tourist (it wasn’t hard) I tried to ignore it all and I think they soon realised that I hadn’t been happy snapping what they thought I had been and called off the emergency.

Typical Pyongyang tower blocks

Typical Pyongyang tower blocks

The hotel on an island

It was an exceptionally cold and windy day and it wasn’t long before we were taken to our hotel to recuperate. We were staying at the prestigious Yanggakdo Hotel. This is one of only a couple of hotels where foreigners can stay in Pyongyang and is located on a convenient islet in the middle of a river. This meant we couldn’t walk around the city on our own and mix with the locals.

Sunday 15th April – Kim Il Sung’s Birthday!

View from my room at the Yanggakdo Hotel

View from my room at the Yanggakdo Hotel

Day two was to be on second and most exciting day of the trip. As was to become the pattern, we were getting up early.

In the foyer I was greeted by cheerful German gentleman who insisted his name was Lionel – although I’m not so sure about that as it doesn’t seem like a very German name to me. He was on an individual tour as he “just can’t deal with groups.” He had procured a very posh English accent from somewhere and had a habit of elongating all his vowels when he spoke which seemed to make short sentences last for hours. He asked me if I had a ticket for the “Maaaaas Gaaaaames”. I told him I wasn’t sure but that I did have a ticket for the Mass Games later that evening. He adjusted his side parting and walked off looking disgruntled. Poor lad.

Kumsusan Memorial Palace

Kumsusan Memorial Palace aka the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

Kumsusan Memorial Palace aka the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

The first stop was Kumsusan Memorial Palace the mausoleum of the late Eternal President of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. The building was formally his official residence but was converted to a mausoleum after he died in 1994. Unfortunately we were not able to take cameras inside as a mark of respect. From the inside you certainly get an idea of how revered Kim Il Sung is by the North Korean people. Before you reach the chamber where Kim Il Sung’s body is preserved you have to walk through a number of other rooms bearing tribute to his reign. There is a huge map showing all the foreign visits he took while in office.

Kimilsunglia Flower Show

After this we visited the Kimilsunglia Flower Show. This is a flower show held every year in Pyongyang. The highlight is the Kimilsinglia flower which is a hybrid named after Kim Il Sung by a former Indonesian President.

The Juche Tower

The Juche Tower

Juche Tower

Next stop was the Juche Tower which was built to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. Despite electricity shortages in the country the tower is said to be lit at night to preserve the symbolic strength of the country. Having said that Pyongyang appeared to be in total darkness when I looked out of the hotel window at night – including the tower.

Kim Il Sung Square

We passed Kim Il Sung Square in the centre of town in our coach and could see thousands of North Koreans dancing. We quickly got the driver to stop so we could take a few pictures.

Cheerful chap cycles by the river in Pyongyang

Cheerful chap cycles by the river in Pyongyang

Mansu Hill and the Kim statue

Our next stop was Mansu Hill or Mansudae where there is a huge statue of Kim Il Sung on top of a hill over looking the whole city. As today would have been his birthday, there are a lot of people there to pay their respects.

After this we went for a walk around a local park and we were lucky enough to talk to quite a number of local people some of whom invited us to eat with them.

Mass Games

Later that evening we went to the enormous Mayday Stadium to watch the Mass Games – an huge gymnastics event where gymnasts perform in large carefully synchronised groups to emphasise group dynamics rather than individual prowess. This was one of the highlights of the whole trip as North Korea is the only country in the world regularly putting on performances like this.

Monday 16th April

Another window shot

Another ‘window’ shot

Korean DMZ and Kaesong

We had an even earlier start on Monday as we were heading out of town to the Korean Demilitarised Zone on the border with South Korea and the nearby town of Kaesong. It is supposedly the most heavily militerised border in the world and I noticed some people looking a bit twitchy.

After lunch in Kaesong we went back to Pyongyang. On the main dual carriageway which seems to connect the south of the country to Pyongyang we noticed virtually no other vehicles other than the odd bike and a few people walking. We stopped at a service station for a cup of tea. It was strangely quiet as it apparently had no electricity, heat or hot water.

The Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

The Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

The Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

On our way back into town we stopped to take pictures at a huge arch outside the city called The Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification. The two women represent the two parts of the divided Korean nation and the yearning of all Koreans to reunite the country.

The bookshop

Once back in Pyongyang we went to a book shop which sold books in English and other foreign languages. The subjects of the books were very diverse including may written by Kim Jong Il himself. There were other books on all parts of Korean culture, music, food, history. I bought a book about the Mass Games and another about a famous North Korean wrestler who had travelled to both Japan and the USA, giving the imperialists a good hiding in the process.

Close up of the Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

Close up of the Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

Stamp shop and traffic ladies

After this we went to a stamp shop. This may sound a bit dull but a lot of the designs were very interesting. Many had pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il but there were also many socialist realist stamps which were very interesting. I bough several postcards which were copies of the socialist realism artwork which was displayed everywhere we went during our trip. A lot of people on our tour had commented that they would like to buy some of the socialist realism posters we had seen. Sadly, they are not for sale as the government don’t see them as art but as “public information sources” and not suitable for foreign tourists.

While outside the stamp shop we were able to take some pictures of the remarkable traffic ladies.

Tuesday 17th April

Morning mist over the Taedong River. The Juche tower can be seen on the right of the picture

Morning mist over the Taedong River. The Juche tower can be seen on the right of the picture

Korean War Museum

On Tuesday morning we visited the Korean War Museum. This museum is dedicated to the conflict of the Korean War 1950-1953 or the Fatherland Liberation War as the North Koreans call it.

War memorial and Ryugyong Hotel

After this we walked across the road to a huge Korean War memorial where I was also able to get a few pictures of the enormous Ryugyong Hotel which dominates the city skyline.

Korean War Victory monument

Korean War Victory monument

USS Pueblo and spy missle

We next visited the USS Pueblo. This is an American boat which the DPRK Navy captured in 1968 as it claimed it had strayed into its territorial waters on a spy mission. The Americans maintain it was in international waters at the time of capture. The boat is now a tourist attraction and we were shown a very interesting propaganda video while on board which highlighted the DPRK position during the subsequent diplomatic crisis which followed the boats capture. The US Navy officers were held by the DPRK for a nearly a year before they were repatriated.

There is another exhibit next to the Pueblo. This is supposedly an American spy missile captured in the mid nineties. The main evidence for the missiles American origins seems to be several internal parts which have “Made in USA” written on them.

Korean Victory War Monument

Korean Victory War Monument

Pyongyang Metro

After this we visited the Pyongyang Metro. We visited two stops – which seems to have been the same two stations that every foreigner who has visited Pyongyang has been to. It has been suggested that they are the only two stations that operate and that all the people we saw in the stations were actors. I find this a little hard to believe as there weren’t that many of us and I can’t believe even the North Koreans would go that far to impress the likes of me.

Korean workers practice marching outside the Korean War Museum

Korean workers practice marching outside the Korean War Museum

Mangyongdae

Later that day we went to Mangyongdae which is the birth place of Kim Il Sung, the Eternal President of the DPRK.

The evening was spent in the hotel drinking. Karaoke may have been involved.

Wednesday 18th April

Leaving by train

Early in the morning we caught the train which would take us out of the country and back to China. This would allow us to see some of the country and the contrast between North Korea and China. The train journey was scheduled to take 24 hrs with us arriving in Beijing at 8am the following morning.

After leaving early in the morning the train crept across North Korea towards the border. The crossing of the border at the town of Sin?iju lasted several hours where the contents of our cases were heavily scrutinised and our passports were taken away for dissection.

Once this process was completed we crossed the Yalu river into the Chinese border town of Dandong. At this point we made the critical error of getting off the train and not returning to Beijing.

Thus the trip was over…

I would recommend anyone wanting to travel to North Korea to go with Koryo Tours. They are a British company based in Beijing who specialise in travel to the country.

Quiet street in Central Pyongyang. The poster 4.15 marks the birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung as his birthday is on the 15th April

Quiet street in Central Pyongyang. The poster 4.15 marks the birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung as his birthday is on the 15th April

James Mullarkey

I write about the web and digital, mediocre sporting performances and places I've been, for this blog and only this blog.