By Brianna 13/November/17 North Korea
It's fair to say a summer holiday in North Korea isn't everybody's cup of tea. It's... unconventional. It's...to be honest it's just a little bit mental. But it is 100% fascinating. Even if you're only mildly curious about the world's most controversial country I'd recommend giving this a read. But then again I'm biased. I'm just showing you the side of the DPRK I want you to see...
Bottles of Taedonggang, the finest local lager, clink together in celebration of a successful immigration and customs clearance. I take my first sip as a beaming border guard high-fives Alex and waves us out of the station. It’s pretty good. Everyone else seems to be enjoying it too, from the wide-eyed western faces that make up our Lupine Travel tour group to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) natives wining and dining in the restaurant cart next door. All of my nervous energy disappears. Frankly, I’m ecstatic. After all, it’s not every day you chug through the enigmatic landmass that accounts for the world’s most reclusive nation.
It’s difficult to do justice to such a complex country and jam-packed itinerary in a single blog post, so here’s a few of our DPRK ‘firsts’ to give you a taste of our adventures behind the modern-day iron curtain:
First impressions at the border:
First thought: something’s not right here. We are definitely in North Korea; there are portraits and pins akimbo to prove it. So why are we all kicking back with a beer when we should have faux-guilt stomach knots over all the contraband we might have accidentally packed? In all honesty, the immigration and customs process is slow but 100% painless. It isn’t abnormally intrusive. In fact, it’s a far friendlier experience than the majority of our land border crossings (*Cough* Uzbekistan *Cough*).
Second thought: hang on, colour exists here? It’s not all black and white baroness before you hit a bleak, military barrack-style Pyongyang skyline? How did our imaginations get it so wrong! All those months speculating about what would await us when we finally make it across the Sino-Korean friendship bridge could not have prepared us for vibrant, typical Asian countryside and pretty pastel tower blocks all the way to a bright and residential capital. How can it look, well, just like everywhere else? Even after a year of witnessing how people and geography shift gradually and how land borders are nothing more than a line in the sand (well, a river or mountain range), we were not expecting this lack of a culture shock.
A few first–hand facts we learnt during the tour
☭ There are no lawnmowers in the DPRK. All citizens keep their city and communal gardens looking pristine by rotation, where dutiful volunteers cut the grass using scissors.
☭ The DPRK is famous for it’s artistry in wax sculpture. At the Yanggakdo Hotel, you can have a waxwork of yourself made and shipped to your hometown for the trivial fee of $15,000. And you certainly wouldn’t be the first westerner to do so.
☭ The International Friendship Exhibition boasts a wonderful array of gifts presented to the Great Leaders from foreign dignitaries across the globe. Highlights are by no means limited to Putin’s present of a bearskin and a jewel-encrusted custom sword courtesy of Gadhafi. Our motherland’s contribution, which includes an offering of a couple of Tower of London gift shop miniatures from the Derbyshire Communist Party, pales in comparison.
☭ One of the major components, and a source of pride and honour for your North Korean guides, is getting to pay your respects at Palace of the Sun, where the two previous great leaders lie in state. While you progress through the Palace, the mood is set by the sombre, stately orchestra recording playing ‘Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will always be with us.’
First set of myths dispelled.
Contrary to popular belief, you can take pictures and video almost anywhere you go on the tour, including through the window on long journeys and whilst walking around the streets of Pyongyang. Also, purchasing propaganda is actively encouraged and every tourist sightseeing excursion comes with a welcome opportunity to delve into some souvenir shopping. As a fellow Lupine Traveller put it:
‘Us westerners really can’t survive without capitalism for a few days.’
Words have never been truer. We were very excited to pick up some keepsakes to remember our time in the DPRK – a postcard here, a newspaper there etc. But some international tourists really like to drag their feet, inspecting each item up for grabs with a microscope. For us, this delays more important activities, such as lunch. But we definitely held the opinion of the minority.
When telling friends and family about our trip to North Korea, the most common and annoying response (apart from the obvious) was:
‘Why? They only show you what they want you to see.’
I hate this phrase more than I hate litterers, personal space encroachers and raisins. And I really do hate raisins. I get it. I understand where you are coming from. Especially because not everybody goes to North Korea for the right reasons. Some people may just go to treat it like a human zoo. In that case, this statement is true; you’re not going to get much out of the experience other than some cool pictures to pimp your social media. But if you keep an open mind and treat the people you meet with respect you can learn a lot from simply being there. You’re not going to uncover top-secret government facilities or spot a nuclear test launch, just as you wouldn’t in every other country in the world. You’re not Louis Theroux (but omg if you were that would be amazing).
Besides, the majority of people that use this cliché are total hypocrites. When sightseers ogle the picturesque London skyline in Greenwich Park, they don’t stop for a bite to eat afterwards in nearby Lewisham. You don’t see many Taj Mahal tourists wandering round the slums of its hometown, Agra. Your guide probably isn’t going to take you over to the south side of Chicago on your city tour. I know, I know, the difference is you have the freedom of visiting such places if you wish. But chances are you still don’t. Guess what, we do visit those places (granted, mostly accidentally) and we’re still ok with the restrictions in place on the tour.
It may be the only experience North Korea has to offer but it’s also the most luxurious. You are staying at the best hotel, eating at the best restaurants, why wouldn’t you be seeing the nicest places the country has at its disposal on a tour like that? As long as you don’t forget where you are, enjoy seeing the side of the nation you are being shown, just as you do, if more indirectly, anywhere else you go on your summer holiday.
The first time Alex rides a rollercoaster.
The tour is such a whirlwind you barely get a chance to take it all in. One hour you’re in charming countryside visiting a Buddhist temple, the next a librarian is putting you to shame with her knowledge of classic English literature. 10 minutes later you’re looking out on the impressively socialist Pyongyang panorama while hundreds of university students are rehearsing for the Victory Day parade. Then, in an instant, you’re standing in the same square as the practise was taking place while the crowds disperse around you, scuttling down to the metro, squashing themselves into busses or commuting via vintage trams. You’re laying flowers at the feet of the Mansu Hill Grand monument. You’re having a quick bite to eat. And then you’re getting strapped into a rollercoaster at the Kaeson youth park.
Neither of us expected to find ourselves in a theme park in North Korea, but, then again, Alex never expects to find himself in a theme park anywhere. He’s the designated bag-carrier – that is, if you can get him through the gates in the first place. But not today. Today he is thrill-seeker extraordinaire. In theory. We’ve managed to use exploitative amounts of peer pressure to get him in the queue.
“When are you ever going to get a chance like this again?’
“You never know, this might cure your fear!”
“Its pretty tame for a roller-coaster. There aren’t even any loop-the-loops. Plus it’ll be over in a few seconds”
“You’re 24. It’s time you tried again. You might actually like it!”
As foreign guests, we go straight to the front, so there isn’t time for much bullying. The pressure of making a quick decision does the trick, however, and the next thing we know our body harnesses were angled into a lying down position and a petrified Alex, a teacher from Croydon, her son and I are being lifted into the air. Even after a days worth of spectacularly surreal events, I struggle to believe we are whizzing around a North Korean amusement park. In some ways, it’s ludicrous. In others, it seemed like the most normal thing in the world. The ride is over before I’ve had time to process any of this. Three of us are exhilarated, ready for the next thrill. Alex is green. He will probably never be tempted by Disneyland again. But even he agrees it was worth it.
First impressions of North Korean People
In a lot of respects, North Korean locals are just ordinary people. They laugh, socialise, go on dates, go to school, study in the library and work to support their families. Yes, there are huge differences in the ways we get to live our lives. But so many of the 25 million people in North Korea are just living. What really brought this home for me was when I was chatting to our North Korean guide about how the wedding restaurant (there is a reception and restaurant where all wedding services in Pyongyang take place) is her favourite place in the city. She went on to tell me how she likes to have a great outfit lined up for weddings because they are the only place outside of work she gets to find love and she wants to make an effort in case a special someone happens to be there. At this point, I could have been in a pub back home, chatting to any one of my friends about their love lives. In other respects, we weren’t that similar. She loves makeup (she was very excited because the DPRK has recently got L’oreal) and hates pizza (cheese isn’t traditional in North Korean cuisine, despite the respected leader Kim Jong-Il’s taste for it) but, despite all of those deal-breakers, I think we would have become good friends if the circumstances were different.
First lot of Final thoughts
Visiting North Korea was one of our 2017 travel highlights. You can write a book about the ethicality of tourism in this country but my argument is that, before visiting, whenever I heard North Korea mentioned in the media, I jumped at the sensationalised headlines and conspiracy theories. Now, I try not to judge the 25 million people who were merely born somewhere and the circumstances that they were born into, circumstances that we (aka every country who meddled in Korea during World War II) wash our hands of, despite playing a role in their creation. We’re no clearer on the regime, the politics and controversy than we were before we left. In most respects, I’m still as flabbergasted by the DPRK as everybody else. But it was still an eye-opening and jaw-dropping experience, worth every bit of the mind-boggling aftershock. And, on top of all that it’s serious amounts of fun. Really. Laughter and merriment ensues from beginning to end. It was top-notch tour and an unforgettable adventure to commence the final month of our travels. Thank you Lupine Travel, our guides, our fellow Lupine Travellers and the people of North Korea for making it so!