From Beijing it’s a two hour flight on Air Koryo to get to North Korea. The visa only costs 50 Euro, so we decided to go. The country closed its borders from October to March due to Ebola, but reopened in April. It is not, contrary to popular belief, illegal for Americans to travel to North Korea (or at least it wasn’t in 2015 when we went). The only way any travelers can go is with a group, so we booked a week long tour with Young Pioneer Tours. They also run tours to Iran, Haiti, Mongolia- their motto is “we go places your mother doesn’t want you to go”. We picked a tour that was the week of the biggest national holiday in DPRK, which is President Kim il Sung’s 103rd birthday. Yes, he’s dead, but he would be 103. And yes, he’s still the President. His son, Kim Jung il, was the General, and his son, Kim Jung Un, is the Grand Marshall.
Some of our group took the train in (24 hours) from Beijing, but Americans aren’t allowed, so several of us flew in. We all regrouped at the hotel- 19 tourists, 1 Australian guide, 2 North Korean minders, 1 North Korean guide, and a bus driver. A pretty mixed group- 2 Irish, 5 Americans, 3 Australians, a Russian, a Slovenian, etc. Chris and I were the oldest, but not by too much. We stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel, one of 17 hotels in Pyongyang, which foreigners can stay at. A pretty nice place, it has 48 floors (except no floor 5, check the Internet for theories why), and a revolving restaurant at the top- lovely views of the city. Downstairs there are several bars, a pool, bowling alley, massage, ping pong tables, billiards, karaoke, a tea house, and an international communications center, where you can (for a high fee), call, fax, email, or Internet with the rest of the world. A call to the U.S. is 5 euro a minute. Hot water from 6-8 am and 8-10 pm.
Dinner, and some drinks, getting to know our group. Then off to bed. The next day, after breakfast at the hotel,we were off to see the capital, Pyongyang. Our first stop was The Palace of the Sun. No hats, no sunglasses, no cameras. It’s the building where both Kim Il Sung (died 1994) and Kim Jung Il (died 2011) lie in state. They are embalmed, and you can view the bodies. You have to line up in two rows, and bow in front, bow on the left side, and bow on the right side.
Next stop was the Grand Monument, 20 meter high bronze statues of both Kim il Sung and Kim Jung il. When they created the statue of the first guy, the people wanted to make a giant bronze statue of the second guy, but he said, “No, I’m just a man, working hard for my country. I don’t need a 20 meter bronze statue.” But then he died. So the people made a big bronze statue and put them up in every city in the country. When you go visit these statues, you have to line up in two rows, bow, then walk up to the statues and deposit flowers. Handily, these flowers are for sale nearby for 5 euro.
We went to a city park next, where, since it was a national holiday, many families and groups were picnicking and practicing dances. We watched one group, joined in, and generally caused a scene. A grass keeper had to yell at the crowd to get off the grass. With a bullhorn. He was mad. After, we went to the Arch of Triumph- just like the one in Paris, but, naturally, bigger- and they had a mass dance. 2000 university students, dancing, in traditional jogori dress for the girls and white shirts, black pants, and red ties for the boys. They practice mass dances every year, and perform them in the Arirang Games, except 2006, when the U.S. called them the Axis of Evil and they were so so sad, they couldn’t dance that year. True story. My guide told me. 2006 was her year and she was very sad to not compete.
After the dance, we went to the Caeson Fun Park, and rode some roller coasters! The locals paid about the equivalent of $1, while we had to pay $5 each ride. But it was like a fast pass at Disneyworld; we got to go to the front of the line. A bunch of our group rode a ride that was like a giant, twisting, pendulum, and it was the scariest ride I’ve ever been on. And I used to work at Six Flags and I’ve ridden them all. Scar.I.Est.
At last it was time for fireworks! Celebrating the 103rd birthday of the Dear Leader.
Unfortunately, in the hubbub of downtown Pyongyang, we lost five of our group members, and it took an hour to locate them. So that was fun. Imagine being lost, on your own, in downtown North Korea. And the five weren’t even all together!!! They were one, one, and three! They were traumatized. Luckily we all made it back to the hotel and to bed.
Day 2: The DMZ
We drove down the wide, six lane empty highway to Panmunjon, where the DMZ is located. We were the only vehicle on the road. They made the highway so wide because they want to be able to mobilize tanks and troops down it quickly if the puppet South Koreans/ imperialist Americans invade. All along the highway are mountain passes rigged with explosives to detonate and bury the highway if needed. At the DMZ, they had us bow to a plaque showing the signature of the great leader, then showed us the room where the armistice was signed- they showed us the copy “left behind by the Americans because they were so embarrassed by their defeat”. They did not show us the tree from the 1976 incident.
All in all, they were pretty relaxed around there. They took photos with us, answered our questions, and as soon as we left the actual demarcation line, they disappeared back into their little hut (it was cold and drizzly that day). There were not actually soldiers staring down their guns at each other. Perhaps they were somewhere else. Chris actually visited the same building the following week, from the South Korea side (read about that here).
After the DMZ, we visited their gift shop (every tourist site in the DMZ has a gift shop), where we picked up some fabulous postcards and stamps. I got extra; let me know if you want one.
Lunch was next, (dog soup optional. No, not kidding) and then we visited the burial site of an ancient Koryo king and queen. It was looted by the Japanese during their occupation. On the way back into Pyongyang, we stopped at the Reunification Monument, two giant angels holding a globe that has the Korean Peninsula reunified. BBQ duck for dinner, mmmm yum.
Day 3: Pyongyang
We visited the early childhood home of Kim il Sung, although his actual birth place is reportedly Mt. Paektu, the highest mountain of Korea and where they believe the son of heaven will descend from. Draw your own conclusions.
We went on a trip to the Metro. The deepest in the world, averaging 110 meters. Each station has a huge mural painted along one wall, representing a socialist ideal. Each station is named something like Prosperity, Loyalty, or Triumph. Huge chandeliers light up the stations, and the metro cars. are the ones that used to be in East Berlin. State newspapers hang in glass cases all along the station so the workers can read the state sponsored news while they wait for the train. When they get married, city dwellers apply for housing near their offices, so bus, tram, or metro commutes are quite short and cost the equivalent of five cents. There are very few cars; many people walk or ride bicycles around the city. Traffic wardens stand at intersections and direct traffic.
We finished the metro at the Triumph station, and came up at the Arch of Triumph, celebrating the 1925-1945 campaign for liberation from the Japanese. Then we walked to the foreign language bookshop, where we could purchase Kim il Sung’s autobiography, all kinds of pamphlets and treatises on socialism, the Juche philosophy, the “imperialist Americans”, the “revisionist Japanese”, and anecdotes from the leaders’ lives. We could also pick up copies of the weekly English edition of the Pyongyang Times. It is fascinating, and I picked up several. Only 8 pages long, but in each edition, two pages are dedicated to exposing American atrocities.
We rode up to the top of the Juche Tower, a 150 meter tall tower with a red flame at the top. It’s a monument to the Juche philosophy, which is basically the idea that we control our own destiny and that with hard work we can achieve our aims. The bottom of the tower is paved with tiles engraved with the names of Juche Societies around the world.
And then the flower show! Featuring, of course, the kimjungilia and the kimsungilia. Groups and societies and clubs get together, and make a flower display, featuring a monument or scene from Korea, 90% of which feature one of the dear leaders. And then they present them at the annual flower show. They kind of reminded me of the annual Peeps Dioramas.
Later, in The Day That Would Not End, we went to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. The star attraction here is the USS Pueblo, an American ship captured in 1968. I thought Chris’s head was going to pop off during that presentation. Inside the museum was actually pretty cool, with well-made models, dioramas, and a really amazing 130 meter-long panorama, painted by 45 artists, featuring over 20,000 human figures at some battle that I’m sure the Koreans were victorious at.
Finally, dinner. We had lamb and chicken, kimchi, soup, and noodles. Then we went to a microbrewery, where we could try a barley beer, a rice beer, or a coffee flavored beer (2 euro each). We were the only people in the bar. The bar closed at ten pm and we went back to our hotel. Did I mention that one member of our group was ill that day and had to stay at the hotel? One of our minders guides had to stay with him.
Day 4: to Namp’o
In the morning we went to the four-story Korean National Treasure House. When they opened the front doors and the light shone in upon the two huge marble statues, I was surprised to not hear a choir of angels singing. We bowed to the statues. Chris, as per usual, seemed to be fumbling with his camera at the exact moment that everyone else was bowing. The treasure house was much like the Sultan of Brunei’s, except all the gifts are from Koreans who live abroad and are so, so sad to be separated from their dear leader. Although, some of them must be okay with being separated, because some of the gifts cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they are probably pretty happy to have all their capitalist money and not be socialists. My personal favorite was the portrait of Kim Jung Il, in full ancient Koryo dress, riding a tiger. No cameras allowed, but I was able to get this snap from the Internet.
Lunch was a lovely picnic at a park on the side of Mt Ryangak. Lots of Korean wedding couples were out there today, and all week, because it’s traditional to do a city tour the day of the wedding, getting wedding photos taken in front of all the monuments, and April is an especially happy time to be married, due to the national holiday and also the cherry blossoms. The ladies all wear the full jogori dress and the men wear suits. Quite fetching.
A mineral water factory was next. They make 8000 bottles an hour. We saw the machinery, drank a sample, and saw a capped geyser of mineral water.
Because everyone loves babies, we visited an orphanage/nursery. There is one in each province. The orphanage also takes in multiples- if a family has triplets or quadruplets, they can bring the babies to the orphanage/ nursery to get nurses to help them care for them while they are babies. The babies can stay there during the day and overnight as well if the parents can’t handle it at home (remember, no nannies or maids here!). Mothers get five months maternity leave- three months before the baby is born, two after. The orphanage we visited had about 140 kids, and one set of triplets born in January. Super cute.
We stayed the night at a hot springs resort, in a pretty fancy villa- fancy in a 1960’s way. The bathrooms had a huge, two-person tile mosaic hot tub, with piping hot mineral water pouring in. It was quite relaxing. For dinner we had famous Nampho clams, cooked outside in petrol by our bus driver. Strangely, they don’t taste like gasoline.
Day 5: West Sea to Pyongyang
Our first stop today was at a dam, called the West Sea Barrage. It separates the West Sea from Korean farmland. The great leader visited there, realized the need for a dam, and because he’s such a great engineer, designed one himself and had it built in five years. We watched a rousing video showing the army volunteers building the dam. It had stirring music and reminded me of the opening scene from Les Miserables.
Next we went to Chongsan farm cooperative. 2500 people live there, of which 1000 are farmers, the others being children, old people, teachers, clinic doctors, and administrators. The farmers get work points for the hours they work, which then gets them rice, food rations, and a salary. In the city an average salary is around $30 to $50 a month, but I think it’s less in the countryside. Much less. The men are given four free beer tickets a month (none for the women).
Lunch was Pyongyang cold noodles, apparently a famous dish. Chris really liked them. At every restaurant, a video of what we called “the North Korean spice girls”- an all-female military rock band that play at official functions, was playing- the guys in our group all found their military skirts and high heels quite sexy. The same video played on both our Air Koryo flights. At most our meals, the waitresses sang karaoke for us as well. There was much dancing.
Back in Pyongyang now, we went to the sports centers. We visited the shooting range. You could play virtual shooting games, use a bow and arrow, or fire a pistol or a rifle. Outside, you can shoot a .22 rifle at a chicken. If you killed it you could keep it.
The last stop for the day was an indoor water park. For 10 euros (foreigner price), you get admission, a swimsuit, towel, and bathing cap. Slides, a wave pool, swimming lanes, and diving boards, plus a bakery, a bar, and a coffee shop. And a sauna and barber shop. Here I was able to snap this fabulous photo of the dear leader at the beach.
Day 6: Pyongyang
The day started with a trip to the film studio, where we could walk through street sets of ancient Korea, Japan, 1960’s Europe, etc. We all dressed up in Koryo costumes and did a photo, and then we watched part of a Korean movie.
The Children’s Palace in Pyongyang was under renovation, so we could only see the outside. Students go to school from about 8 to noon, eat lunch, and then go to a central building for extracurriculars like music, sports, calligraphy, embroidery, or extra study hours. Gifted middle school and high school students have the option of being sent to a central boarding school instead of their local regular school. When students finish high school, the boys generally join the military for three years, and the girls for 1-2 years, but it’s not mandatory (but it is highly desired for dating/marriage prospects). After military, or instead of, they go to university or go to work in a factory or other job. At the end of university, the best students are invited to join the government in different capacities.
Mansudae art studio is where all the artists work, and they make all the huge bronze statues, the huge marble statues, the tile mosaics, and any other art pieces deemed necessary.
Kim Jung Suk textile factory dormitory is a newly built, very nice dormitory for women that work at the textile factory. It has 330 rooms, and each room houses 7 girls! Wow, I thought having one roommate in college was hard, imagine 6. Their dormitory includes a bathing room (hot and cold pools, dry and wet sauna, showers), a library, sundries shop, tailor, dining hall, and outside sports area.
The Raekwon Department Store was next, three floors of extremely high priced goods. The pricing system in Pyongyang is very weird and hard to explain. I saw an external hard drive with a “450 won” price tag, and a basketball that was 1150. A nice dress was 32000 won. There are two pricing systems; those for people paying with ration cards and NKW and those with hard currency like euros.
And, finally, we wound up at a bowling alley. I love the photo of Kim Jung Il visiting there. We rented some shoes, bowled a game- 115- and left. It was during the workday so there were only a few Koreans in there.
And that was our trip. Pretty bizarre. A fully packed week, seeing so many things. In general the Koreans we met were very nice, but we were not really allowed to interact with locals at all. It’s so hard to figure out what is real, what is propaganda, what life is like for the regular person on a daily basis. We took about 1100 photos so if you want to see more of North Korea, let me know when Chris and I come to Texas/Virginia in July to see our dear comrades friends and family, and we’ll show you the whole thing.
I’m including some links below that will offer a bit more insight into life in North Korea: