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Published: February 6th 2014
Party propaganda in the city center
Yes, according to the local tour guide I was the first Italian to visit the northern North Korean city of Sinuiju! What an honor! I am a pioneer to where nobody except myself and Chinese tourists looking for bear bile want to go! I know you are enthusiastic about these news but just try to keep it calm and finish reading before the party starts!
During my stay in the DPRK I had my chance to visit the "other" North Korea, i.e. places outside the showcase capital Pyongyang. Luckily I could go to the southern city of Kaesong, which used to be the capital of the whole peninsula back in the days, as well as visit the border town Sinuiju in the extreme north of the country. Of course with my government minders but hey, something is better than nothing. This gave me not only the chance to catch a little glimpse of what the DPRK is really like but also gave me the chance to drive by bus and train through the countryside. This was actually one of the most amazing experiences, as I tried not to fall asleep and see as much of the country as I possibly
Pyongyang to Sinuiju
Boy at village gates, somewhere in the north of the country
I do also realize that many fellow travelers are interested in visiting North Korea and that there are many many weird websites giving lots of contradictory opinions on what a trip to the DPRK is actually like. I am not a tourist guide and I don't want you to consider me one, but I am sure that my experience last week can help you to consider if you will (or not) choose to visit the country. I promise you that everything I write here happened on the tour I had and I won't make up fairy tales 😊 If regulations change or you encounter different things in the country do anyhow not blame me please!
Anyway, there are different things on the internet which people seem to be highly concerned about. I will shortly address the main issues I have found and tell you how I experienced them on my trip. I also realized that there is a lot of bull**** regarding DPRK trips on the internet and opinions are often contradictory. Hope I can help a little with that. So lets start with the first issue I have read about:
1. Food. People often blog
Local life in the outskirts
and post about how horrible food in the DPRK is and even on a famous documentary the hotel food was described as "fried matter". This is not true. The country is clearly starving, as is not difficult to see from the bus and train windows. Virtually every tree in the DPRK has been logged and animals are a rare sight (with the exception of some starving goats in the country side). No cats, no dogs, hardly any birds. Nonetheless, face management is as important in North Korea as it is in any other Asian country. I was served plenty of food. Rice, kimchi, eggs, some meat and vegetables. And I don't even like Korean food. Of course, the variety is not the biggest in the world but hey, its still North Korea and I can guarantee that you will be full from what you get. Beer and Soju are also plenty so don't worry about booze either. The infamous Air Koryo burger is also not as bad as people would tell you (imagine a cold McDonalds Cheeseburger, thats pretty much it).
2. Indoctrination. You are afraid that North Koreans are gonna convert you to being a communist, anti-imperialist rebel?
Small North Korean village, as seen from the Great Wall in China
Well, I can assure you that they will try! The whole trip is pretty much a political booth camp. Almost every site you will be visiting will be somehow related to the great leaders, Korean independence, the Juche philosophy or anti-American struggle. And if this is not enough, you tour guides will most likely start to hold speeches about how they want to reunite with South Korea when they had a beer too much. Plenty of false information on the Korean war are also provided. Close you eyes and just ignore it while you are there.
3. Hostility towards foreigners. This is absolutely false according to what I have experienced. Most people you encounter (and some locals you can actually talk to!) will be very curious to see pictures of your hometown and ask you lots of questions in regard. This is also a step towards bringing some outside word information to the DPRK, don't you think? I actually could celebrate new years evening with 1 million locals in Kim Il Sung Square and went for beers in a couple of local bars. Isolation from the locals is by far not as strict as it used to be and
New years picture! It's Asia after all...
I did not get bad looks from anybody.
4. Restrictions. There are plenty. Don't mention politics and if someone else talks about it, the golden rule might be to just shut up. You will also be constantly scrutinized by your minders and you are not allowed to leave the hotel by yourself. In order to make this sure, you will mostly be locked inside a building which often offers you at least a bar to drink your sorrow away. The restrictions on photography have anyway been softened largely. I took almost 1000 pictures and the border guards did not even cancel one of them. Mobile phones are also allowed by now but they will usually only work if you are close to China and South Korea and catch some foreign signal. GPS is not recommended...
5. Its dangerous. Most countries don't have embassies in the DPRK but I have never felt threatened. The North Koreans need money and tourists are an essential means for this goal. As mentioned before, just listen to you tourguide, don't be a smart*** and you will have a trip as safe as in Switzerland. The rules are few and simple, for sure you
get to hear them several times on your trip.
6. Isolation. True. People know nothing about the world. There is no Coca Cola. No internet and hardly any electricity. Warm water is a luxury reserved for tourists. Most of the country is stuck in the middle ages. Make sure to bring some pictures of wherever you are from, even your minders will love it. People are very curious to hear about anything outside of their country.
This is pretty much all I have to say as these are the things I see most people being concerned about. North Korea is a time travel to a 1970s China, make sure you realize this before you visit. If you are not sure you can handle the 5-6 things I have mentioned, you should consider finding another destination for your next trip. After all, we can never stop hoping that one day the political situation in the DPRK changes and that we will finally be free to come back and walk the amazing streets of Kaesong, which for now are open only to the locals. See you then North Korea and good luck with your struggle!
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