Returning to visit North Korea
After a brief visit to Sinuiju in North Korea in 2017, I decided it was time to explore the country a little more (as much as is possible anyway). I noticed Young Pioneer Tours were advertising a Christmas North Korea tour and this seemed like a perfect little getaway for the festive season!
It may surprise some people, but getting a North Korean VISA is probably one of the easiest ones to obtain, and everything was arranged by YPT making a visit to the hermit kingdom easier than you think.
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Crossing the border on my North Korea Tour
We were told to meet at Dandong train station at 9am where the tour group would be greeted by our guide; a towering Aussie with a mop of blonde hair and mischievous glint in his eyes. On my previous trip I crossed the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge by bus, but this time we would be crossing by train (the bridge is split in two for rail and regular vehicles).
As we waited to pass through customs and board the train, we were briefed on some of the do’s and don’ts when visiting North Korea (no pictures at the border, of soldiers etc etc).
Exiting China was pretty straightforward and we soon boarded the train. There were around 20 people in the tour group which was made up of mostly Europeans and a few others (Canadian, Mexican, Singaporean and Mauritian). We had several compartments between us and settled in for the 8 hour journey across North Korea to the capital, Pyongyang.
Soon after crossing the bridge we came to a stop at a small station where we would go through the North Korean customs check.
Soldiers entered the train and our guide joked around with them like old friends, while surreptitiously stuffing a few eager pockets with packets or Marlboroughs to ease the process. Rowan told us that he had made this journey over 100 times and it was obvious.
After taking our passports and asking us to put all our electronic equipment on the table, we were left to our own devices for 30 minutes or so. Upon the return of our passports we were told we can leave the train to stretch our legs and buy some beers and snacks from the vendors on the platform. After another 30 minutes we were on our way.
North Korean Scenery
It was interesting to see how the landscape changed from China. Fields stretched for miles with a backdrop of rising mountains to the south. Everywhere was basked in a golden glow as the bright winter sunshine melted ice and snow in the fields. We passed small villages and towns where North Koreans could be seen cycling and walking, just going about their daily lives.
It was dark by the time we reached Pyongyang. The station was similar to any you would find in China, Russia or Eastern Europe; a grand grey-stone affair with large clock in the centre.
I was excited to finally be in Pyongyang; a name that conjures images of spotless soldiers of the DPRK marching in step alongside nuclear warheads in a defiant display of military might. I wanted to try and get a real feel for the place and see behind the headlines.
We were met at the station by our North Korean guides; Ms Kim, Ms Song and Mr Lee. It was obvious that Ms Kim was in charge, and although she had a good sense of humour, it was best to do as she said as she had a strict school-teacherly way about her. Ms Song was the friendliest of the bunch, and Mr Lee was a be-suited chain-smoking guy in his early thirties.
We boarded our tour bus and were told that we would be taken to a local restaurant for dinner, before going to our hotel and checking in where we could rest or hang out in the hotel bar. On a visit to North Korea there isn’t much in the way of freedom, but that’s par for the course.
The restaurant was decked out in murals and bright flowers and had a cosy atmosphere. We had our room rather than open plan seating with spinning tables, as is customary in Asia. Most of us ordered a Taedong beer, North Korea’s palatable lager.
The food was brought in by waitresses in traditional Korean dress and set down on the spinning tables for everyone to dig in. North Korean chopsticks are round rather than rectangular so it took a bit of time to get used to them. The food included kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), fried pork, salad, rice cakes and soup and tasted exquisite. It was one of the nicest meals I’d eaten in a long time!
The Ryangang Hotel
After dinner we took a short stroll around the block and back to the bus. The streets were clean and basked in the glow of nearby buildings, but a little dark due to the lack of street lights. We boarded the bus and were advised by Ms Kim that anyone who made the bus late would be made to sing a song on the PA system.
We got to the Ryangang Hotel around 9pm and checked in. Much like the Hotel California, we could check out any time we wanted, but we certainly couldn’t leave unaccompanied! Although I hadn’t paid the single supplement, we had an uneven number in our group and I managed to get a room to myself!
We all went to our respective rooms to freshen up before meeting in the revolving bar on the 15th floor. The hotel was clean and spacious but with the fading air of former glory. The rooms were comfortable enough save for the lack of hot water (it was near -20c outside so the lack of a hot shower was a little frustrating).
Everyone met in the bar where we while away a surreal Christmas Eve getting to know each other over a few Taedongs (about $1 each).
Christmas Day on Tour of North Korea
We gathered for breakfast in the downstairs restaurant at 7.30am. I helped myself to toast and fried eggs, washed down with sweet lukewarm coffee and then we made our way to the bus. Now that it was light we could see the hotel was at the top of a hill overlooking Pyongyang’s football stadium. In the distance the Taedong River meandered through the city and out into the hills.
On the bus red santa hats were handed out to make our tour of the city a little festive. I chuckled to myself thinking of the absurdity of it. The bus dropped us off at the Pyongyang Grand theatre. A large mural on the outside of the theatre depicted a rosy-cheeked woman in peasant clothing brandishing a machine-pistol with flag-waving soldiers behind her.
We walked along Sungri Street and past Kim Il Sung Square where I took photos. The streets were busy with traffic and I was a little shocked to see modern 4X4s cruising downtown Pyongyang. Smartly –dressed policewoman stood in the middle of large intersections directing traffic (if she faces you, it’s clear to go; when she turns her head, stop – a useful system for when power outages stop the traffic lights from working).
We stopped at the Foreign Language Bookstore on the corner of Sungri and Somun Street, where I bought a couple of copies of the Pyongyang Times printed in English and a few other souvenirs. We then continued along Somun street towards the Taedong River and Teadongmun Park where kids were playing basketball on the courts there. Across the river the 560ft tall Juche Tower stretched skywards with it’s bright red flame flickering towards the heavens.
Back on the bus and on to the Mansudae statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We were briefed about the protocol for visiting the statues and this is the point of any trip to North Korea that you need to listen and pay attention as any disrespect shown to the founding father and former leader will be taken very seriously indeed (the country operates under a lese majeste rule which forbids attacks on the dignity of the sovereign state, where punishment for such treason is severe). Needless to say at this point in the trip those still wearing santa hats were asked to remove them forthwith.
We made our way to the statues as wedding parties strolled by after paying their respects. The grooms were decked up in military outfits and the bride’s in traditional Korean dresses. At first we had to take a bow together in front of the statues and then those who had bought flowers, laid them at the feet of the former leaders. The atmosphere was tense in Ms Kim was running around trying to get people with logos on their t-shirts to cover them with their jackets.
After paying our respects, we took a short drive to the Grand People’s Study House; a library and university provided for students to work and read. Inside we were led to different study rooms and saw students working away under the careful gaze of the former leaders on the wall. We were led up to the roof for a stunning Panorama of Pyongyang. We were told not to take photographs to the South due to military installations, but the view East across the river was rewarding enough. As if to add to the surreal Christmas spirit, it started to snow.
The Juche Tower
We crossed the river on Taedong Bridge and made our way to the Juche Tower. At 160m (560ft) tall, the grey, stone column and red flame of the Juche Tower can be seen all across the city. The tower was built in 1982 to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. We had the option of taking an elevator to the top for an additional 5 Euros and this was something I had been especially looking forward to.
Outside the tower, plaques that had been sent from all around the world in support of the Juche Ideology decorated the lower walls. Inside a small gift shop sold souvenirs and books.
We crammed into the claustrophobic elevator 8 at a time and the journey up seemed to take forever as we rattled slowly through the tower. I’m not a big fan of even the most modern lifts, and to say my sphincter was quivering would be something of an understatement! I was more than a little relieved when we finally made it to the top and edged out of the almost 40 year old wooden box.
I soon forgot my fear as the views from the platform were incredible; a real birds-eye view of this strange and intriguing city. Brightly coloured apartment buildings looked stunning in the early afternoon winter sunlight. It reminded me a little of Tirana in Albania, which was indeed itself a closed pariah state until relatively recently. The two countries certainly shared a love of brutalist concrete architecture juxtaposed with explosions of light and colour.
Monument to the Party Foundation
If one symbol represents North Korea more than any other it is the triumvirate of the hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush. These represent the workers, farmers and intellectuals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
After an action packed morning most of us were feeling a little tired so were pleased to learn that the next stop would be lunch at a hot pot restaurant. We would be having traditional Korean hot pot. Chinese hot pot has the pot and stove in the middle of the table, but the Korean version is individual bowls and heaters for each person. We were all served plates of meat and vegetables to be cooked in the broth bubbling away in front of us, along with cold, crisp Taedong beer. Again, the food was excellent and in no time the feast had been reduced to empty plates and dirty napkins.
Pyongyang Metro – Highlight of a North Korea Tour
The first stop after lunch was something else I was very much looking forward to; namely a ride on the Pyongyang metro. Public transport in North Korea is usually off limits to tourists so I was very happy to be able to get a glimpse of subterranean Pyongyang.
The metro system, which was built by the Russians and includes rolling stock from East Germany, has 2 lines and 17 stations. At 110 metres it is the deepest metro in the world and the escalator seemed to descend forever. The stations are similar to those in Moscow; grand affairs with crystal chandeliers and Romanesque columns.
The station was busy with workers and schoolchildren, some glued to mobile phones which felt a million miles from the North Korea I had read about and felt more like the Northern Line on the London Underground.
We travelled 5 stops and tried to chat with some of the kids who were more than a little surprised to be sharing their commute with a bunch of foreigners. Our guide talked to them in Korean and a couple of the students could muster a few words of English, but overall were very shy.
The Pyongyang metro is definitely one of the highlights of any tour of North Korea!
We exited at the Arch de Triumph station to be met with an oversized replica of its Paris namesake (it was built 10 metres taller, in an “anything you can do, we can do better” sort of a way).
USS Pueblo and Victorious War Museum
Our final destination on our North Korea tour of Pyongyang was the war museum and captured American spy ship the USS Pueblo.
We were met by a striking North Korean army Captain in her early to mid-twenties, complete with army uniform and high heeled shoes. She would be our English-speaking guide for the rest of the afternoon, and I always found myself sniggering whenever she uttered the words: “American Imperialists”, which was frequently.
On 23rd January 1968 the North Korean navy intercepted what was purportedly an environmental research vessel, but in actuality was an armed spy vessel containing 84 soldiers. 1 American was killed in the capture and the other 83 were taken hostage by the DPRK. After 11 months of torture and mock executions, the prisoners were finally released after long talks and an official apology from the USA.
The Pueblo is docked off a small tributary to the Taedong River and is open to visitors as part of the wider museum. It is the only American warship still held captive anywhere in the world.
After an interesting look around the vessel, we then went up to the main museum that looked more like the Ritz Carlton than a museum. A grand, ornate staircase led up to a huge waxwork of Kim Il Sung.
We were taken to a small room to watch a propaganda film and I found myself nodding off. It had been a very long day and I struggled to keep my eyes open. It was bliss to be sitting down.
After that we went up to the top floor of the building which housed a huge 360 degree diorama with rotating floor which showed the battle of Taejon with the Japanese. It was an impressive sight, but the propaganda was beginning to get a little overwhelming.
Shopping and Dinner in Pyongyang
We were due to visit a brewery and bar in the city but it was getting late and the group was pretty tired, so it was decided we would go for dinner and then back to the hotel, but first we would make a stop at a department store to do a bit of shopping.
Up until now we had paid for everything at the hotel and tourist sites in Chinese yuan, but the department store and supermarket only accepted Korean currency. There was an exchange where we could swap our Chinese yuan for North Korean won (another little excitement).
The department store was what one might expect in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe in terms of minimalist utilitarian design. The shelves were relatively well stocked with food and clothes and perfume, and it was obvious that only the more well off sections of North Korean society could shop in such a place, but it did feel normal as people went about their weekly shop (a lot of people seem to think that everything one sees in North Korea is all staged, but I didn’t get this feeling at any point on the trip).
I bought a few bottles of Soju and Ginseng wine (Korean spirits) and some sweet snacks to take home and then headed to the cafeteria on the top floor where they served beer on tap. We were given free reign and had an hour to shop or relax before being picked up for dinner.
We were taken to another restaurant for dinner and entertainment provided by music and singing. It strikes me that the North Koreans are an incredibly musical bunch, and as on my first trip to the country, it was obvious that many people here have a real talent for music. After dinner we went back to the hotel where a few of us went to the bar and toasted our Christmas in North Korea until the small hours.
And that, my dear friends, is how I ended one of the most surreal, but also rewarding Christmases I’ve ever experienced on a visit to North Korea.
The following day we would be going south to the city of Kaesong and the Demilitarized zone (DMZ). The tense border with South Korea was another highlight that I was immensely looking forward to.
How to Visit North Korea
If you’d like to visit North Korea, Young Pioneer Tours can arrange both group tours like mine and bespoke personal tours. Check out their website for more information. Quote TRIPYPT20 and get a free exclusive t-shirt when booking!
About the Author
Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.
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