North Korea – The full story

It all started with an article in a German magazine on the developing tourism in North Korea that I read in early January. The article made me realize that it is actually possible to travel to this closed of country Only 4 weeks later, we boarded a plane to Pyongyang (see our departure pictures here). We spent 8 days traveling North Korea on what was truly lifetime experiences. Here is our story.

Day 1 (06.01.) The flight from Beijing to Pyongyang in the Tupolev TU-204 is bumpy. The first Korean food – the Air Koryo Burger – remains untouched. As we land, we set our clocks forward by 30min, as North Korea as adopted Pyongyang Time in August 2015. Pyongyang Sunan International Airport Terminal 2 is small but modern (only opened in 2015). At immigration, my electronics (camera, phone, eBook reader) are take to inspection, which turns out to be very brief.

Outside, we meet our Korean guides; three in total plus a driver and a camera man for a group of 18. We have to hand over our passports and visas to our guides. Mr. Kapsida (“Let’s go”, the nickname of our main guide) lays out the rules:
1. You cannot go anywhere without your guide
2. No pictures of military, no pictures that show Koreans in a bad lights
3. Respect the leaders, i.e. bow if asked to, only full frame pictures of statues

The entire program is planned very carefully to show the visitors the positive side of Korea. The image that is conveyed is Korean people are very hard working to peacefully build a thriving nation. Of course, there is a lot of subtext to this (see rules above, I you do not pay respect to the efforts of the Korean people, you will face serious consequences). While our guides are very friendly and trying to give us the best possible experience, it is very clear that they are elite soldiers  of tourism. Every word is carefully crafted. At every single time, their countries leaders are referred to as Chairman Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshall Kim Jong Un. However, you cannot hide the view from out of the bus window. In the end, we got a deeper insight into the country, than we expected.

On the way to our hotel, we get a first impression of North Korea (the guide insists, we call it DPRK). The Pyongyang Arch of Triumph was built for Kim Il Sungs 70th birthday to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan. Its the second tallest Triumph Arch in the World.

We stay in the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The hotel is located on Yanggak Island in the Taedong river, which passes through Pyongyang. This is the largest hotel (largest working hotel, as Ryogyong Hotel is towering – still unfinished) in the DPRK. It is fully equipped with several restaurants, including a revolving restaurant at the 47th floor, a casino, bowling alley, karaoke bar, swimming pool, souvenir shops, etc. On the way to our room, we encounter some fundamental problems, which we will meet frequently during our trip: (1) only 3 out of a total of 8 elevators work, and (2) a power outage delays our ascent. However, from our room on the 38s floor, we have a magnificent view over the city.


Day 2 (07.02.)
In the morning, we have to dress up (men in button shirt and tie) to visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the former official residence of Kim Il Sung and now Mausoleum for both, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Absolutely now pictures allowed. We have to check in our cameras and go through a tight security check. We enter the palace through a long hallway, which connects the visitors checkin area with the main building. The inside of the palace is monumental. We take the elevator up and are greeted by two larger than life statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un, where we have to bow – to “show respect” but it becomes clear that there is a religious admiration for the leaders, a real cult. Through an air gate, we enter the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum on the second floor. Kim Il Sung lies in a glass sarcophagus in the center of a large room with high ceilings.  We have to line up in lines of 4. Guards make sure that our posture is appropriate (no crossed arms, etc.). Then, we step up to the sarcophagus. Bow at the feet, bow at the side, walk around the head and bow at the other side and leave. Its an eerie feeling. In the next room, all his honors and titles are presented (two honors from Erich Honecker, many honors from Africa and South America, and, of course, Russia and China). We also see his train, boat and cars, together with an account of all major travels. Next, we take a giant staircase down to the first floor, where we go through exactly the same procedure with Kim Jong Il (“why do we have to go through the Mausoleum twice?” – its almost identical). Kim Jong Ils train is preserved as it was at the moment of his death in 2011, glasses on the desk, a stack of papers to be reviewed. Notably, he used a MacBook Pro as his working computer. Your move, Apple! On our way back, we see many Korean visitors, Military, men in suits, women in traditional Korean dresses. Groups stay close together and nicely separated. Outside the palace, we can take pictures.
DSC04564DSC04570Becoming a dictator in North Korea has a declining marginal value.
1. Kim Il Sung has been made the Eternal President of the country.
2. North Korea has adopted the Juche calendar, which starts from Kim Il Sungs birthday (so we are currently in Juche 105).
3. Kim Jong Un has been made the Eternal Generalissimo of the country.
That’s taken. Kim Jong Un may take a post as well. So even less for the next dictator to take.

After Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, our propaganda tour continues to the Korean Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum [sic!]. Outside the monumental museum, weapons captured from the American imperialist, including spy planes and helicopters captured after the end of the Korean War. Main feature is the USS Pueblo, a US military vessel captured by the Koreans in 1968. Koreans claim that the Pueblo carried out spying activities in their waters, showing written confessions by the crew and a letter of apology by President Johnson as proof.

Inside the Museum, again, no photos allowed. The museum is monumental. We are greeted by a familiar larger than life statue of Kim Il Sung at the top of an enormous staircase, to which we have to “show respect”. First thing we get to see is a movie on “Who really is behind the Korean War”. While the answer seems obvious, we are deprived of the conclusion by yet another power outage. The museum shows the despair of the US troops as well as field life of the Korean troops. The  main feature is a great panorama hall showing the battle of Taejon.

Filled up with propaganda, its time to fill our stomachs. On the way back to the hotel its the first chance to take some pictures of Pyongyang street life.

Lunch is the same as many lunches and dinners to follow: Potato, cabbage, rice, with fish and meet as westerner special.

After lunch, we visit a student learning center. A giant facility in the shape of an atom with over 3.000 computers (access to Korean “Internet” only), and even a few books including 12 on nuclear energy. Go Korean Nuclear Program. It serves to promote the sciences. Its a bit like a zoo. Especially to Korean children, we seem like Martians.

Outside is the reality of the people, ice fishing on the river.

In the evening, we drive to Kaesong. The road is terrible (and I don’t say that lightly). The road is made out of concrete blocks that are full of potholes. We get thrown around in our seats. As we get closer to Kaesong, the number of military check points increase. Late night, we check Kaesong, we check into our hotel. The temperature is about -10C, there is no heating in the hotel. We eat dinner in our coats. As the hotel only has hot water for 1h, the well meaning hotel staff fills the bathtubs in our rooms, ferrying water in buckets from room to room. However, the main effect of this valiant act is that the rooms become very damp in addition to being ice cold. Luckily, our heating blankets work – as opposed to many others in our group. With some extra blankets we go to sleep.

Day 3 (08.02.)
Cold morning. No shower. Breakfast in coats. While we freeze, the world heatedly debates yesterdays launch of North Koreas “”Earth Observatory Satellite”, which, by most international observers is regarded as a test for an intercontinental ballistic missile. However, world politics seems to have no impact on the ordinary life of the people.

Today, we first visit the old town of Kaesong, the capital of old Koryo. As today is Lunar New Years Day, there are many celebrations in the street.

After the visit to the old town, we drive to the DMZ at the 38th parallel. The DMZ is heavily fortified. Roads are either build on dams or in trenches. Trenches have big stones on both sides that can be dropped on the road to block tanks from driving through. The bridges (actually all bridges we saw) have six large stone pillars that can be collapsed on the road. At the entrance point, we have to line up (the familiar line of 4) and wait for our accompanying military staff). We walk through the gate and get back on the bus. First, we visit the site, where the peace treaty was signed at the end of the Korean War (our guide does not get tired of pointing out that the US signed under the flag of the UN to avoid admitting defeat).

From there, it is a short drive to the Joint Security Area, the meeting area between North and South. The JSA has two large buildings, one on the north side, one in the south side. In between runs the Military Demarcation Line. Situated directly on the MDL are 7 smaller barracks. These are meeting places for joint talks between the north and the south. In the central barrack, a conference table is set up dead center on the MDL so North and South can sit in either country and negotiate. From the balcony we can see the boarder line, which is demarcated by very large flag posts.

From the DMZ, we move to the more peaceful Koryo Museum, to witness some thousand years of Koryo history, including some very old (apparently 1.000 years old) trees, which take 4 people to hug and promise a long life). Korea actually has the oldest movable metal type press from 1377, about 60 years before Gutenberg introduced movable type in Europe. Also, we see an interesting price table for cows, women, men and children. Outside, we meet a Korean wedding, taking pictures. We also buy some famous Kaesong Ginseng.

Lunch is special for two reasons. First, it is served in 12 small metal bowls. As usual, it contains a lot of potato, cabbage (mainly in the form of kimchi), rice, algae and egg. Second, we also get served a bowl of dog meat soup. Koreans have a special bread for eating. It tastes similar to dear. But its a mental thing preventing us from eating a whole lot.

On our way back to Pyongyang, we visit the Tomb of King Kongmin from the 14th century. The tomb has a tragic story. After the Kings wife died, he sent men looking for the perfect place for a tomb, killing them if the proposed spot was not perfect. When visiting a mountain to view the spot, which the king found perfect, he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, forgetting that showing his handkerchief was the sign to kill the finder. Apparently, the king exclaimed in dispair “Oh my!”. This gave name to the mountain. Also, we stop at the Reunification Arch, just outside of Pyongyang, a symbol of the peaceful reunification process – the thing Kim Il Sung strived for  all his live.

After we go back to Pyongyang, we visit the shooting range in the sports area. There, we get to shoot old Russian small caliber pistols. Our guide shows of his shooting skills. What a surprise.

In the afternoon, Pyongyangs military had celebrated the rocket launch on Kim Il Sung Square. In the evening, the square was the site of the Lunar New Year dance. Thousands of Koreans danced into the lunar new year under heavy snow fall. We joined them and danced with them (much to their delight and laughter, because we were slow to learn the dance moves). The dance ended with a tremendous firework (interestingly, western media mentioned only the military celebration and the firework, but not the dancing).

With the day coming to a close, we enjoy a Korean duck BBQ.

The hotel again offers a magnificent view over the town

Day 4 (09.02.)
We wake up (in our warm hotel room) to a beautiful, snow covered Pyongyang.

This mornings program is a walk in the city and to the Mansudae Great Monument, giant bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Later in the morning, we visit the Foreign Language Bookshop, which is sells “revolutionary” literature from the DPRK, mainly works by Kim Il Sung, translated in many languages, including English, French and even German. We buy revolutionary posters, as those that can be found on the street. The great thing about these posters is that they are not printed but actually hand painted. After the bookshop, we again visit Kim Il Sung Square.

Next comes a first, a helicopter flight over Pyongyang. A few people separate from the group to drive to Pyongyang airport. First, we have a “European Lunch” at the airport. Its an opulent meal with two main dishes and two desserts, including crab salad, fried chicken, spaghetti, cake and ice cream. Afterwards, we get our tickets (yes, real tickets) and check in for flight JS8101 (yes, a flight number for a private flight). Our helicopter is awesome: wood imitated plastic flooring and 60s tapestry. On the left side is a working desk with two chairs, on the other side a bench. We fly for 40 minutes, to Pyongyang and fly over the city and back. Close to the airport, we can actually see several artillery post with large guns, reminding us that this country is in a state of war.

Back in Pyongyang, we meet up with the rest of the group on top of the Juche Flame tower with a beautiful view on Kim Il Sung Square. Its fascinating to see, how quickly the high rises turn into slums and farming villages.

Before we head out on our next roadtrip, we take a ride on Pyongyang’s famous subway. The system has two lines, both build in the 70s, which can also serve as bomb shelters. Tourists are allowed to ride 6 stations on the line. We ride to the Arch of Triumph. Three of the six stations are grande, with chandeliers, revolutionary mosaics and statues. The subways themselves are mostly old Berlin subways (yes, we really felt at home). We even got to ride in one of the local Korean subways. According to our guides, we were so lucky. Even people going the other direction changed lines to ride this symbol of the striving nation of DPRK.

In the evening, we drive to Mt. Myoyhang. Again, an ordeal on wheels. Terrible roads, even worse than before. We get thrown around our seats until we reach our hotel (again, cold, again, dinner in coats).

Day 5 (10.02.)
Today, we visit Mt. Myoyhang. A short drive through one of the Korean industrial regions, streets filled with revolutionary posters. The main thing to see here is the International Friendship Exhibition. Here, all gifts given to the leaders are collected and presented. Its exhibition holds over 110.000 objects. I get to open the 4 ton copper door to the exhibition building. Photography is, again, prohibited and we have to check our cameras, jackets, wallets, even scarfs. We get to see the silver bowl from Madelain Albright, a teddybear from the FDJ and a train and a plane from Stalin.Everything is gear to showing the visitors, how much the rest of the world admires North Korea. After the exhibition, we have coffee and tea on the balcony and enjoy the scenery.

Our second stop at Mt Myoyhang is the Pohyonsa Buddhist Temple, a 11th century temple. Very beautiful and tranquile place in the mountains. Religion is officially allowed, but its strictly forbidden to convert anybody (that is why e.g. bibles are strictly prohibited in North Korea). The true religion are the Korean leaders.

After lunch, we drive back to Pyongyang. By now, our backs are shattered. In Pyongyang, we drive to Mangyongdae Native House, the birth place of Kim Il Sung. It is bizzar to see the amusement park right next to the house. The house itself is small (no pictures allowed inside). We are lucky that we are the only visitors, while usually, the place is crowded.

On the way back to town, we see ten thousands of people walking home after having welcomed the scientists responsible for the rocket launch in Pyongyang. In the evening, we head to the famous Golden Lane Bowling Center, a big bowling center in Pyongyang. Not the best bowling but I manage a 111.

After bowling, we split from the group to get in a vehicle of the UN Development Program. With two of our guides and a new driver, we head to Masik Ski resort, close to Wusan. It’s a 4h ride, but not as bad as in the bus. We have clear sky and the stars are amazing.

The resort is outworldly. After 4 hours driving through villages without real roads, small farm houses, not even smoke coming out of the chimneys, people sitting on the back of trucks as hitchhikers, we arrive at a full western level 4-5 start resort. We have our dinner in the big dining room, all by ourselves.

Day 6 (11.02.)
First day of skying. Anything can be rented at the resort, even jackets, pants and goggles. With full outfit, we head to the slopes. First, we start with the small runs. The resort has 10 runs in total (plus the baby hill), but I would say only 4 main runs, while the other 6 are variations. Have the runs are not prepped. No problem in the morning but after a warm morning, the snow gets slushy. Before lunch, we head to the top restaurant and I take two runs. While the run No. 9 is fast and fun – I am the only one on it (as was the case for most of the runs) and just go for it. On No. 1, a long green run, I question the Korean understanding of gravity, as I need to skate up a number of hills. I am pretty done for at lunch. Just a few more runs from the top in the afternoon (awesome, since I am practically alone, except for a pro from New Zealand and his camera man – my tracks are no less shitty than theirs in the wet snow).

Day 7 (12.02.)
We wake up to bad weather. Low hanging clouds, rain, and warm temperatures. Fortunately, our guides have a plan B. We decide not to ski today but rather go back to Pyongyang and visit the circus. So, last time back to the car. For the last time, we see the many people hitchhiking or riding on the back of trucks, people hiking on the road or riding their bicycles on dirt roads, accidents and car breakdowns.

Back in Pyongyang at the hotel, we actually have some time to relax in the hotel, before we head to the Pyongyang Circus. The Circus is located in a very large building and it holds over 2.000 people. Visitors are about 1/3 military, and 2/3 “regular”people, I suppose Pyongyang upper class. We see a great display of acrobatics, some great flying people. The show seems like the circus in the 90s. Even had some very bad slapstick clowns but the crowd enjoyed in tremendously.

The most eerie thing was to leave the circus. There are no lights on the square outside the circus, there are no streetlights. Its just large crowds of people walking home in the dark. We enjoy a meal of cold noodles (speciality) with our guides and, after a last beer in the revolving restaurant, call it a night.

Day 8 (13.02.)
Today is our final day. We get up at 5:30 for a small breakfast and leave for the airport at 6:30. For the last time, we witness the eerie scenery of thousands of people walk to work in the dark. As always, there are few cars on the road. No street lights to illuminate.

On Immigration, Michi gets through no problem. My Immigration lady types and looks and types and looks. Then calls over another guy. Same procedure. Finally I realize that I do not have a beard in my passport picture. The second guy is tricky: “What’s your name?” “Fabian Kirsch””What? Whatever. Go through”. At security, Michi gets held up; but not over our camera (they did not look at camera or cellphone at all), but for our revolutionary posters and some metal chopsticks. After a great performance by Michi, chopsticks go on board with the stewardesses, and we can keep the posters.

In the terminal, we discover a direct flight to Shanghai as the second flight on the board, right after our Beijing flight. A bit later, we discover, that there are only two flights in total on this day and Shanghai would have left very late at night. So no harm done. At 8:55 we get on JS151 to leave North Korea. What an experience…

… but wait, we are not done, yet. As we get up into the air, I feel a bit dizzy. Actually, I had not slept well and was a bit sick and dizzy already at breakfast. I tried to sleep on the plane but could not as my back still hurt from the bumpy roads. As we make our way across the Yellow Sea, I feel very dizzy and possibly about to have a black out. A short while later, I wake up, quite happy that I apparently managed to sleep a bit. My sleeping position felt comfortable. I tried to figure out, how I managed that. As my eyes focussed, I saw one of the Norwegian guys from another group travelling parallel to us standing over me, as well as a crowd of people around me, shouting frantically. Apparently, I had not only passed out but passed out with a cramp. Gave Michi the scare of a lifetime as I must have looked cramped and dead, the full thing, eyes turning inwards, hands totally cramped up, head turned red, tong sticking out, bowel movement.  The whole thing must have lasted a minute or so. They put up my legs, get some blood back into the head and I got better, quickly. First time in over 300 flights. One last thing on this trip to tick of on my bucket list (although, rather on the unplanned part). The flight to Shanghai is fine and we return home safe and sound after a truly memorable trip.

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