Travel | One comment
From: Travel Adventures
In the North, nothing is straightforward
One of the conditions for visiting North Korea is that you are not allowed to go anywhere without the guides which are appointed by the State.
Not only the itinerary is completely planned beforehand, any visit or trip needs to be completely endorsed beforehand and going anywhere without guide is simply denied. However, this seems to depend on your guides, and probably also on the time of your visit, since it seems that some others have indeed been allowed to walk a little bit around.
Nevertheless, we tried on several occasions to get the permission for an innocent stroll around the city, but this was never granted. The motivation was that the guides were afraid that we would take unwanted pictures, and they told us of an incident in which a Korean woman had contact the police, who quickly identified the responsible guides. Since we did not want to create a scandal and did not want our guides to get into trouble, we decided to stick to this severe limitation to our freedom. The eventual compromise was a guided walk along the vast and almost empty stretches of asphalt avenues in the capital. How much were we longing to just some walking around, talking to the population on the street, and, indeed, taking pictures whenever we wanted! Even the apparently most innocent shots were not approved by the guides, while the stares of the people we saw were certainly not hostile at all, just very curious. Obviously, the guides preferred us to take nice pictures of one of the monumental statues instead.
The pictures you can see on this page were the ones we took more or less unnoticed. In this country of contradictions, the nervousness about our walking about the city for fear of contact with the local public struck us as an especially obvious and lamentful example. After all, in all its publications, monuments, and all other channels the government tries to make it very clear to the very same visitors to the country that these people are the happiest, proudest, most friendly and social people of the world. One can wonder, then, what could be wrong with communicating with these people?
Religions: Traditionally Buddhist and Confucianism, officially atheist
Climate: Moderate with four distinct seasons. The hottest time is July to August, which is also the rainy season; coldest is from December to January, winters in the far north can be very severe. Spring and autumn are mild and mainly dry.
Currency: North Korean won (KPW)
OK, so North Korea is the most closed country in the world. The next logical question for those interested in visiting the country is: how to get there? On the map of Pyongyang, for the convenience of the visitor, all possible connections from the outside world are listed. There are 4 trains a week from Beijing, and two international flights.
One of the exits blocked by luggage
Where for most destinations in the world the options are getting almost endless, the traveler to North Korea does not have to ponder for a long time how to reach his destination. We opted for the train from Beijing. Upon entering the compartment which actually accommodated two other persons, we discovered that it was empty. However, we also came across a large amount of beer under the seats, and a piece of luggage in the compartment. Strangely enough, the compartment remained empty the whole night. This was especially puzzling, because all the other compartments were stuffed with people and loads of luggage. Actually, since the passenger compartments apparently were not enough, luggage was also stored in two of the three toilets, as well as in three of the four exits of the carriage. Obviously, our peace would not last until Pyongyang.
While in the railway station of Dandong, the border with North Korea, two persons entered the train, sweating, suffering, and looking desperate. They were trying to push an enormous package through the aisle, struggling with what appeared to be an impressive weight. When they finally arrived in front of the door to our compartment, they stopped and smiled. The package had arrived at its temporary place. With a superhuman effort, moaning and trembling, the two men managed to park the package on one of the top beds.
We had watched this spectacle with our eyes wide open. When we returned to the aisle, a second package, at least the size of the first, had mysteriously entered the aisle, leaving us little to guess as to where its destination was concerned. To make a long story short, after we had left the compartment on the North Korean side of the border, it had been reorganized completely. By now, it contained two more packages of enormous size and weight, some boxes with fruit, a smaller box with a dirty dog which before meeting his owners had been white one day, and a complete family of three. The son was positively mentally retarded, enjoyed playing with sharp objects, throwing them through the compartment, cleaning a watermelon with a knife and then using the same instrument to help put on his shoes, and demonstratively putting used chewing gum under our seat. His sister had fun in throwing the dog around, either through the air or just by kicking the poor animal inside where she thought it belonged.
Since our time in North Korea was limited, we decided to occupy one of the few windows which could be opened, to look outside at the countryside and the villages. After all, this was the mysterious, closed country which we had wanted to see so desperately. Already at the border station we found out the function of the beer bottles: they were offloaded and disappeared in a car which was driven by someone clearly sanctioned by the heavily guarded soldiers whose task was to prevent interference of train passengers with the outside world, and vice versa.
This very first station also provided us with the very first sight of a face which would be etched in our heads for the next days: that of late President Kim Il Sung. During the many hours it took the train to reach the capital, we saw a lot of different crops in the fields, poor people working the land, very old and obsolete tractors, almost no traffic, and every entrance to a village marked by a huge arch with a slogan.
Although we unfortunately could not read them, we could guess their meaning. They were all praise to the country’s superior system, persuaded the people to work harder to serve their country and its dead President, and basically reminded people that there was no escape from this paradise.
Instead of leaving at the first station in the country, our friends in the compartment accompanied us to Pyongyang. With a 3-hour delay, we arrived in the evening. In an attempt to escape the crowd and the struggle to offload the incredible amount of luggage, we also unintentionally escaped our guides who had been waiting for us. With slightly worried faces, they found us at the hands of a female official with whom no sane person would like to argue. Our visit to North Korea had really started now.
For days now, the guides have been talking about the South Koreans. Sometimes as their brother folk who have been robbed by the imperialist Americans. Sometimes as their enemies, allies of the hostile world. Finally, we get to visit the border post. After driving for hours on a nearly completely deserted highway from Pyongyang, we end up in Kaesong where we stay overnight. The next morning, without much ado, we continue to the border. We get one last briefing with a model of the area (again, unfriendly words about “the other side” are used). From here, we enter the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).
We then proceed to the hall where the armistice was signed. The South Koreans refused to sign, because they did not agree. Technically, the two countries are still at war. Here again, there are rooms with exhibits about the infamous Americans and their “puppet allies” who imposed themselves on the defenseless North Koreans. A short drive from here, and we arrive at the real border. But before we reach that, we stop at a gigantic white stone with a Korean inscription. We are told that the base is 9,4 meters, and the top 7,7. Obviously, this is a symbolic link to the day that the sculpted words were written. The author … who else than the Great Leader? One day before dying, he left this message for his people: Korea should be reunited. It seems in contradiction with his efforts to be independent and self sufficient.
Then we continue to the United Nations-blue buildings which are built exactly on the across the borderline. Before we can enter, the North Korean guides take position, and the South Koreans have to stay behind their line. Inside, a table. One side of it is North Korean, the other South Korean. Crossing this border is impossible – for fun you can walk around the table. The absurdity of the situation becomes clear. Probably the most vivid reminder of a Cold War…
Visited: Kuly 2000
Of course, with such an important President, his roots are very important, as is his childhood. So, the Koreans changed history once again and invented Kim’s birthplace: Manyongdae, a lovely hill near the capital and the river. It was well understood that to become a real Hero of the People, the background of the President should be as humble as possible.
So, replicas of very modest dimensions of his native house and childhood surroundings were placed in the Manyongdae Park. Some items were placed in them, but since we are talking about God here, it is not allowed to enter the houses. Pictures of the grandfathers of the Late President can be seen in one of them. Also, a picture of Kim’s son has been added.
The guides cannot stop talking about the fact that the poor President did not see his parents alive after allegedly winning the guerilla war against the Japanese, only his grandparents. Every story they tell you is even more sad than the previous one. Anyway, according to modern North Korean history, this is the place where Kim Il Sung grew up, played as a child, pondered over the future of the country as a 13-year old revolutionary in the 1920s, and laid the basis of his endless wisdom which would lead the country to such prosperity.
The most incredible story they told us, though, was the Story of the Jar. When standing in front of one of the houses, there are three big jars on display, and the third is completely distorted and seemingly unusable. In these surroundings, where everything related to the Late President, the Great Leader and the Genius of the 20th Century, the innocent visitor frowns upon seeing this jar which appears to be misplaced. However, the explanation is very obvious. The Mother of the Great Leader was extremely poor, and she did not have the money to buy a new jar when she needed one. Since she was also very practical, she bought a misformed jar, which obviously cost less money. Hence the importance of the Distorted Jar in the life of the Late President. His background is as poor as any North Korean could be. His brilliance made him President. Kim Il Sung, the personification of the American Dream.
Five rules for traveling to North Korea
I’m told that travel to North Korea is quite safe, as long as you follow the rules (and don’t do anything stupid). You have to realize that, politics aside, you’re entering a country that just does things differently. Of course, the consequences that come with straying can be severe. The trip will be scripted, but you know that going in. Follow the bouncing ball, and you’ll be just fine.
This year, we’ll get a sense of how widely North Korea is willing to open its doors to the line of westerners waiting to enter. In 2009, the window for Arirang-related trips was extended, and there are some indications that this year will bring further liberalization to travel rules for Americans. There’s nothing but opportunity, it seems, for travelers interested in seeing the most remote country on the planet.
Again, travel to North Korea is safe, I’m told, as long as you stick to an established tour group, preferably one that specializes in excursions for westerners. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to be hyper-conscious of your environment. Here are five ways to make sure you don’t extend the “Ugly American” stereotype to Pyongyang.
1. Stay on the beaten path
Every travel writer in the world seems intent on delivering super-local, “insidery” insights, encouraging you to really blend. In North Korea, that’s the worst advice you could possibly receive. Want to see something strange? The beaten path will give you plenty.
2. Bring cigarettes
Fuck the Surgeon General! Everything I’ve read suggests that North Korean cigarettes suck. Use packs of Marlboros as tips, and you’ll be treated very well throughout your vacation. Pick up a few cartons at home, preferably in a state that doesn’t tax the hell out of them.
3. Be careful with your camera
There is no shortage of rules about what you can photograph (and how). When in doubt, ask your tour guide. First, you don’t want to run afoul of the regs. More important, though, is that you don’t want to ruin someone else’s day … which could end in a damaged career or worse. This is especially the case if you want to take pictures of North Korean people (which is almost always forbidden).
4. Don’t go political
Be open to having a good time. The official guides are actually quite personable and seem to realize, if subconsciously, that they are in the service industry. Your North Korean tour guides will probably be more accommodating than the flight attendants you encountered en route from the United States. Interact with your guide as guides — not as politicians. These people aren’t setting North Korean policy any more than you’re setting U.S. policy.
5. Interview the tour company
The people taking you into North Korea will make a difference. Stick with a reputable company that has a track record of running tours for westerners. Before you make a purchase, talk to the people who run the company. Get comfortable with them. Don’t be afraid to ask even the strangest questions. The right tour company will not only be open to them, it will answer you from a position of expertise and experience.