“You are one of very few who travel to North Korea so please be respectful of the local cultures whether you agree with what they say or not”, said one of tour companies staff.
I’ve always wanted to visit the places most don’t. North Korea was top of the list. Earlier this summer my friend Dan posted on Facebook, “Who wants to go to North Korea?”, to which I instantly replied yes!
Going with a sensible friend was a good idea as I can be a little cheeky and push the boundaries of what we can and can’t do. Something which has more serious consequences in North Korea than most places. Saying that, we were told that tourist won’t get in trouble unless they commit a serious crime or preach religion to the local North Koreans. It would be the guides and the tour companies that are impacted. Not something you want to do either as it is a great job for both, and you wouldn't want to jeopardise that.
Going to North Korea can (for most), only be done via an authorised tour group. Koryo Tours is the one I chose. There are only a few options to be honest but we’d been recommended Koryo so went with them.
There is a 4 day short tour or a 7 day long tour. I chose the short one, due to work; flying in and taking the train out.
To better condense my thoughts and learnings in North Korea I have structured the article into sub headings over a few posts. Let’s start with what we’d be up to during our 4 day stay in North Korea.
Arrive in Pyongyang, North Korea by plane
Attend International World Cup Qualifier Football Match — North Korea vs Philippines
Visit the DMZ on the border of North Korea and South Korea
Visit a few sites in Kaesong, in the south of North Korea near to the DMZ
Mansudae Grand Monument
Flower exhibition at Kimilsungia-Kimjonglia Exhibition Hall
Munsu Water Park
Military Parade for 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and Mausoleum of Kim Il-sung & Kim Jong-il
Kim Il-sung Square
Foreign Language Bookshop
Kwangbok Department Store
Metro Ride (Pyongyang rush hour)
Chongbong Band performance at the People’s Theatre
Leave via train — Pyongyang to Beijing on a 22 hour sleeper train
This is not the easiest of places to plan a tour so some of things were changed from the original schedule, which thankfully our group were understanding off and the guides were very informative about any last minute changes and why. Having a great, happy group certainly helped the trip. People are always a large part of the enjoyment you get from trips. If you do go, be flexible and open to everything. You’ll get more from the experience that way.
The plane out to North Korea
On the way out I was intrigued as to what we might get in terms of in-flight entertainment. It was only a short flight but they still managed to feed us, some sort of burger, I’d maybe eat beforehand! They also served beer, which was passable. On the screen we were treated to a patriotic musical performance. Apparently Koryo Air is the world’s only 1 star rated airline, but it seemed OK to me despite the dodgy food and lack of options on what you can watch!
They also handed out copies of the Pyongyang Times, in Korean to the locals and English for the tourists. There were only a few of each and didn't manage to get my hand on either until leaving the plane when some were discarded on the seats and I saw my opportunity to sneak one into my bag. It was mainly news about the upcoming 70th anniversary of Workers’ Party parade which is a huge event for North Korea. We were lucky to be part of the experience surrounding this.
We landed along with a large number of international media who were invited to watch the aforementioned parade.
Located on an island in the middle of the river Taedong in Pyongyang, The Yanggakdo Hotel is the most populated by tourists. In what we’d probably class as a 3 star hotel, there was a wide range of activities. This included Bowling, Billiards and Karaoke, all of which Dan and I made full use of on the first night in North Korea!
On the first night we even managed to get one of the local staff members joining us for a round of Bowling. She was not bad. Dan who had previously lived in South Korea (hush, hush) and had the basic vocabulary managed to even draw up a little conversation. Fun was had by all and after a few too many beers we called it a night.
Over the following evenings we frequented the Bowling and Karaoke regularly and on one fateful night made it to the revolving restaurant were three of us induced in the Korean tipple known as Soju. Beware there are two types; the 80 RMB Soju which is smooth and very good and the 30 RMB Soju which tasted like what I’d imagine a mix of turpentine and watered down potato juice would.
We also enjoyed many beers. The beer of choice being Taedonggang Beer which was pretty enjoyable. There was also a draught beer available in the ground floor bar. We tried this on the last night with our American friends, alongside a ‘Blueberry Wine’, which turned out to be a 40% liqueur. Neither of which I would call, good.
There is a complete blog post on getting drunk in North Korea in the recommended reading at the end of the article.
The hotel also has Ping Pong, a number of restaurants, swimming pool, barbers, massage parlour, a Macanese-run casino (in the ‘Chinese basement’), coffee house, souvenir and shop with snacks and drinks.
The rooms are fairly standard, not to dissimilar to a standard Holiday Inn. The plugs all had adapters in place so you could use your round two pin adapters/plugs. The TV had North Korean news channels which were entertaining and patriotic. All the news was very ‘happy’. It also interestingly had BBC and Al-Jazeera as well as some Russian and Japanese news channels. I wonder if the cleaners ever switch on the TV while cleaning the rooms!
The infamous floor 5
As we entered the grand entrance of the Yanggagdo hotel on the first night, Simon, the founder of Koryo tours and man largely responsible for the opening up of many places in North Korea to tourists mentioned floor 5 as part of his introduction.
“Floor 5 is a myth that a colleague and I invented as a joke which has gone too far, it’s actually just offices down there. It’s all rather boring.”
Whether that is true or not, I don’t know and frankly don’t really care, but I don’t have any reason not to believe him. You’ll find much more about floor 5 on other blogs. I've included one in the recommended reading at the end of the post. Due to the elevators being unbelievably slow, especially around meal times, we did walk up the stairs a couple times. The door to floor 5 was covered with a wooden panel so you couldn't access it. I did have a sneak peek at floor 4. It just seemed like the staff rooms. It only differed from the tourists floors by adorning the walls with propaganda messages. Which is what you’d expect really in this country.
Day 1 activities
International football match
I'm a big football fan! And every opportunity to watch a local match when I'm travelling, I take. This has to be the best experience yet.
The game: North Korea vs Philippines — AFC 2018 World Cup qualifier at the Kim Il-sung Stadium in Pyongyang.
By the time we assembled and met our guides after passing immigration at the airport, we were running late. There was also a bit of confusion at the entrance to the stand we were seated in, as the soldier on duty initially turned us away citing that we were too late. After a heated discussion with our Korean representative and a number of official looking people getting involved, we were quickly ushered through to our seats with about 30 minutes of the game gone.
Our first experience in North Korea and we were sitting amongst a crowd of passionate North Korean football fans.
One half of the 50,000 seater stadium was made up of spectators in the colours of the North Korean flag. In the middle was a choir of school children who led the songs sung throughout the stadium. It was quite the spectacle. Dan put together a video where you can get a better sense of the atmosphere.
As the match drew to a nail biting finish with the Koreans well on top, the local fans around us seem to enjoy our enthusiasm and to drop their guard a bit. Their excitement escalated and it was great to see them turn around to us and express their emotion as chances came and went in the dying minutes.
Despite the pre tour perception being that interactions with locals would be restricted and any interactions will be overseen by ‘minders’, within an hour of landing we were freely mixing in with the locals. However with their lack of English and our lack of Korean (and being a football match) there was a lack of conversation but lots of shared sentiment. I guess this made us feel closer to a culture we view as very alien from the outside world. It was a nice introduction to our tour of North Korea, despite the 0–0 scoreline.
It was quite the atmosphere and I would have loved to have seen the stadium erupt after a goal to the home side but that experience will have to wait.
The Arch de Triumph
Just outside the Kim Il-sung Stadium is the Arch of Triumph. Modelled on the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris, North Korea’s version in the middle of Pyongyang sits 10 metres taller.
Like most of the monuments in North Korea there is a reason for everything. Each of the 25,500 pristine white granite blocks represent a day of the life of Kim Il-sung up until his 70th birthday when the monument was opened.
Part two will be up in a couple days which covers more about the locals, the food and some of the activities, including a visit to the Demilitarized Zone at the border with South Korea and the Workers Day 70th Anniversary Military Parade in a bit more detail.
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If you’re thinking about going to North Korea and had some specific questions, leave them in the comments below or tweet me.